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Letters from the Homefront: ‘Pandemic Report from Williamsport, MD’

The following “Letters from the Homefront” account is part of our new initiative, Collecting in Quarantine. Inspired by the poignant letters in the Maryland Historical Society collection documenting past adversities from the Spanish flu of 1918, to the Annapolis yellow fever epidemics of 1793 and 1800, MdHS is calling on Marylanders to send their personal stories of how the pandemic is impacting their lives.

Man wearing mask sitting in airport
Photo courtesy of the contributor

May 12, 2020 – On this day, a contributor from Williamsport writes:

I am a teleworker much of the time under normal conditions, so when the pandemic began to build a head of steam I was not out of place being prepared to continue working. That is not the same for the clients I serve.

Early on I had a plane trip to South Carolina to address an issue with a microfilm scanner requiring some mechanical adjustments. I was a bit worried that the confined spaces of the airplane would be conducive to catching what was going around. The date was 05 Mar 2020 and I was at BWI waiting for my flight and I noticed quite a few people wearing masks.

My client, a state agency, seemed to be doing business as usual and no mention was made of the growing threat. I returned the same day with no ill effects from the experience.

My next trip was on the 9th and was to be my last to the present time, mid-May. I went to a Federal office, the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, where a system was being re-installed. While I was there the folks were pulled into a meeting regarding working from home. The man I was there to see asked his associate upon leaving the meeting and re-joining me if he has to work from home. The general consensus was that when they wanted to work from home it wasn’t allowed, but when it is required it wasn’t wanted. My issue there turned out to be a security protocol which I did not have control over, so I asked them to let me know when the issue was resolved and I would return. I spoke with them a couple times since, but the issue is still not resolved.

News of the approaching threat increased mentioning that people in ‘at risk’ groups should be concerned. I am over 60 and have a compromised immune system from 20+ years of diabetes, so I am in such a group. The threat was respiratory in nature and determined by fever. I decided to purchase a forehead thermometer, a Braun model which I got online after waiting a couple weeks. I also looked into a pulse oximeter so I could verify any relative drop should one occur. I decided to get a fitness band from Garmin for that purpose that had a pulse oximeter built in and that would also work while asleep. Being of a science oriented nature I enjoy the data provided by the band, and I was able to determine some oxygen drops or low spikes while asleep, but otherwise normal. Checking my temperature almost every day revealed no fever. My 30 year old son who lives with me tried the thermometer once, I assume so he knew how it worked. While I was worried about my job he was getting projects to work on remotely.

The Martin’s grocery store announced that they would entertain only 60+ year old people an hour earlier at 6AM each day. The first day I went there was a line to get in. Advice was to wear a mask since one might spread the virus not knowing if it would be spread or not. I felt it was a courtesy to others to do so, so I found a Jack Daniels bandana I received at a biker event and tied it to act as a mask. The bandana was black with white printing and I got a few looks that made me feel a bit criminal. I overheard two store re-stocking workers mention as I walked by that they had heard everyone should wear masks (and they were not). It seemed this was not the time for everyone to be following the guidance, but about 25% were doing so. The next development at the store was the addition of one way isles, and a mask requirement to enter the store. Now all shoppers and workers were masked. There was a pre-made deli area with assorted meats and cheeses ready to select from, but the deli was closed. It was hit or miss to find paper products or cleaning materials. Finding a favorite brand was not available in many cases with these items.

My son and I had been on a South Beach type diet to lose some pounds. We tempered the diet as we did not want to feel depreciated in the event illness struck us. The weight was all gained back. We’re reconsidering that decision now and looking to get back into the weight loss groove. I’m fondly remembering the doughnuts we had and the Klondike bars as well. I had been worried about food availability. If trucks stopped delivering then the food would be wiped out. I had prepared for that by stocking some long shelf life dehydrated food to last about two weeks. I used the opportunity to use some of the canned goods I had on hand and to replenish them with fresh selections. My freezer was full of goods to keep us going, and the fresh items seemed less appealing.

My girl friend from Martinsburg, WV is a bit of a germ-o-phoebe. She bundles up to shop. She washes everything down with bleach and water before it is stocked into her kitchen. Her outer clothes are shed at the door and washed. She gets a shower immediately after decontamination of the food items and wiping down any surfaces she touches. Vegetables are washed with soap and water. She is worried about the two teenagers she is raising and withheld them from school three days before the schools actually closed. News that a family with children in their school had traveled to China and back terrified her. She is developing wild theories about what has happened, if someone did it intentionally, did it really come from China, and so forth. I do my best to calm her and drive her thinking back to the known facts.

Receiving packages at home is always an uplifting moment in the day. I usually go out to greet the delivery guy, or postman if they drove up my 100 ft driveway. I continued to do that until I noticed the look of terror on one driver as I approached without a mask. He was not wearing one either, but I realized if I had left him alone he could have just dropped the package at the door without any contact.

A plumbing emergency occurred where one side of the double sided kitchen sink broke from the drain pipe below the sink. I assessed the issue and determined the easy fix, as I wanted to replace the sink eventually anyway, was to block the drain pipe and just not use the one side which was broken. Traveling to Lowes I went to pick up fittings to close off the offending drain. The store was jammed packed. It seems everyone is doing home improvements, since they are stuck at home! I found the fittings I needed and blocked the drain. This revealed the primary drain was stopped up as water would not recede in the sink. When the drain was broken, the water didn’t backup it just came out under the sink which resulted in a true mess. As an ignorant plumber I returned to the store to get drain cleaner. I was shocked to learn that some cleaners were not for sinks with disposals. I emptied the sink by bailing it into a bucket, then removing the trap. Once empty I dumped the drain cleaner in and waited…..nothing. I started to think, “Why would it not go down even a little bit?”, and it occurred to me it must be a grease clog thus water tight, brilliant. When I removed the trap again it occurred to me that I had about 1 gallon liquid in the bucket removed but the drain cleaner was only 1 quart. The clog was too far down for the cleaner to work. I found a 6 foot drain snake in the garage and got it about 3 feet into the drain. I returned to the store again to purchase a 20 foot drain snake that could be rotated to get it past junctions the shorter snake could not pass. The ignorant plumber was at work again trying to feed the snake into the drain. It seemed more exhausting than it should be. I pulled the snake out and noticed some paper and wood fibers in the coiled end of the snake. I filled the sink again and it seemed to recede about 1/2 in in an hour’s time. Noodling the situation I realized that I had not used the entire length of the snake so back to work I went. This time I detected grease on the last 6 inches of the snake. The drain was again slow. I spent a few frustrating hours before trying one more time. This time I spent some effort turning the snake clockwise, and counter clockwise. I assembled the trap and poured down very hot water. The drain was slow but moving. Adding more hot water and wha-la it was fixed.

Later in March I was contacted by the president of the company I work for along with all other employees indicating that he did not know if we would be paid but hoping we would continue to assist customers. The staff meeting teleconference that followed a few days later was filled with questions regarding filing for unemployment benefits. I seemed clear that I was not specifically layed off, but maybe furloughed. The ambiguous email was troubling, so I decided to get in the unemployment line just in case. I received one more check after that and thought it might be my last. Then we were informed, in another email, that the Federal Payroll grant was not received as the money had run out before our company’s application could be processed. Now I thought we would no longer be paid. I was searching for work every day. Although I discovered a few jobs to apply for each week, obviously there was not much ado with anyone hiring. I received one response indicating I would not be selected. I certified that I was paid for Monday and Tuesday of the final week and I was sent a debit card with $600. Two weeks later the company did pay me for the rest of that week and the next. Now I had incorrectly responded to the unemployment office and I had to fix my earlier certification. The website was breaking and it was suggested the best form of communication was email. I found an email address and sent them my question regarding how to fix my issue. I had hoped that they could just claw back the money, but to date I have received no response. The repaired website typically has a 20-30 minute wait just to get in, so researching what else to do is hampered. I did receive a message indicating that if I was overpaid I would receive a statement letting me know more. This message was prior to May, so I thought a statement would have already been generated, but so far nothing.

I had my first Zoom meeting last night with the Friends of Fort Frederick. Everyone seemed happy to be meeting as I could see their faces and body language. I was using the laptop that I try to keep secure, so I have the camera disabled. I was one of two who did not have their cameras on. I think I can load Zoom on my desktop PC and add a camera to do the next meeting.

I had my first medical appointment by telephone as well today. I provided the BP, temperature, weight, and blood sugar readings I recorded for my Endocrinologist. He expressed not liking the telephone approach and looked forward to meeting me in person since this was the first time he had (seen) me.

I did receive the stimulus money so I’m considering a new countertop and sink in the kitchen to fix the current issue. I will contact a countertop distributor later today to see how to get the ball rolling based on the Governor’s plans for resuming business.

I am currently a member of the Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. Our annual meeting was rescheduled for June 6. At this point the Governor has not allowed restaurants to open and our annual meeting includes breakfast and lunch. The average age of the membership is well over 50 years old. So the plan is to gather a bunch of old guys from all over the state into a room while a pandemic is still raging. I responded that they would not see me at this meeting based on business re-opening plans currently in place.

I’m also a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. Our annual meet is scheduled for the end of September and I have high hopes we will be able to meet. As a member of the Antietam Radio Association we usually have in person meetings twice a month. The meeting place is a church which was closed for decontamination. They also have a social hour at the American Legion hall prior to meeting at the church, but I have not attended that since they started the practice. They had their first on the air meeting held totally on FM ham radio with a backup on an online meeting site. In the interest of brevity parliamentary procedure was amended so any motions were automatically seconded, which worked well. The next meeting was better as some of the kinks were worked out. It was election time and a roster of attendees was made and ballots emailed out in the form of a balloting service link. The process had been vetted and it was agreed that it worked well. Election results should be available this weekend. I shy away from many of the in person meetings because I don’t like to drive after dark, but the online, or on air meetings are no problem.

I also received an absentee primary ballot in the mail for the presidential election in Washington County. I intend to fill it out and drop it off at the BOE site designated when the time comes.

There is still much to do, but I can’t help thinking it would be good to get things back to normal. I feel however, that there is a new normal, we will have to see.

Please note: The views, information, and opinions expressed and shared on the underbelly through the Collecting in Quarantine project do not necessarily represent those of the Maryland Historical Society. Our staff does not verify for accuracy the information contained within these submissions. We also do not edit the content beyond minor modifications for formatting or to remove personally identifying information, if applicable. Just like the historic letters in our collection, each letter presents the writer’s own perspective. The primary purpose of this series, with the permission of contributors, is to share and collect the experiences of Marylanders living through the COVID-19 crisis at this moment in time.

To learn more about the Collecting in Quarantine project and how to share a story of your own, click here.