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Sorry, America, the Full Lockdown Is Coming

Politicians won’t admit it yet, but it’s time to prepare—physically and psychologically—for a sudden stop to all life outside your home.

An abandoned home
An abandoned home stands behind a padlocked gate in Stockton, California, on April 29, 2008. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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A few days ago I shared wine, cheese, and camaraderie with a small group of close friends, and sadly, after five excellent bottles of Côtes du Rhône wine, we said goodbye to one another, knowing we shall not again share company for many weeks, perhaps months. Yesterday my dearest neighbors knocked on the door, carts loaded with suitcases and boxes in tow, to wish me well for the duration of the great pandemic. We air-hugged, and I sadly watched them tromp off to their packed vehicle, abandoning New York City for their country home. As they wandered off, I said, “See you in September, I hope—or whenever things are normal again.”

For some countries—Italy, South Korea, and Singapore for example—the moment of decision and personal preparation has long since passed, and millions of people are stuck in place, watching their epidemic unfold. On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, the mayor of San Francisco ordered her entire population to “shelter in place” for a few weeks: The window of opportunity to relocate has closed for residents of the Bay Area.

Whether you are reading this in your living room in Vancouver, office in London, or on a subway in New York City, you need to think hard, and fast, about two crucial questions: Where, and with whom, do you want to spend the next six to 12 weeks of your life, hunkered down for the epidemic duration? And what can you do to make that place as safe as possible for yourself and those around you?

Your time to answer those questions is very short—a few days, at most. Airports will close, trains will shut down, gasoline supplies may dwindle, and roadblocks may be set up. Nations are closing their borders, and as the numbers of sick rise, towns, suburbs, even entire counties will try to shut the virus out by blocking travel. Wherever you decide to settle down this week is likely to be the place in which you will be stuck for the duration of your epidemic.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

To appreciate what lies ahead for the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom, pay heed to Italy, France, and Germany. The United States, for example, is currently tracking exactly where Italy was about 10 days ago. France and Germany, which track two to five days ahead of the United States, are now revving up measures akin to those taken by Italy, including lockdowns on movement and social activity. In a matter of days, the United States will follow suit.

If you live alone, have no family members or close friends who require your special attention, and have no alternative living space, you have no decision to make. You are where you will be for coming weeks.

Many households are now swelling as colleges and universities close, sending students to their parents’ homes, and young adults find themselves facing financial ruin amid the shutdown of theaters, restaurants, gig economy work, construction sites, and other forms of employment lacking job protection and home leave assistance. These young adults may also choose to return to their parents’ homes, or to secondary residences owned by friends or relatives.

As employers shift to work-from-home status, white-collar workers with salaried jobs need to consider where best to hunker down, allowing them strong Internet access and a home work setting. For workers whose jobs require physical presence at a work site, such as custodians, factory workers, security guards, construction personnel, taxi drivers, and the like, the relocation option is decided—stay put. But many may lose their jobs, either temporarily or permanently, due to the epidemic, and the prospect of six to eight weeks without an income stream is excruciating. Anybody facing that prospect should immediately negotiate with their landlords, mortgage lenders, and utilities, seeking long-term payment options, and scour for information regarding their legal rights if threatened with eviction, power shut-off, or lost credit due to epidemic-spawned nonpayment.

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Because elderly people, particularly those with underlying medical conditions, are at special risk for severe reactions to COVID-19, including death, many families are making choices to move closer to their aged loved ones, or bring them to live with their adult children and grandchildren. These can be painful decisions, particularly if the elder’s health requires daily attention or features dementia. As the epidemic worsens, it will become increasingly dangerous for such elders to travel: Tough choices must be made immediately.

Once tough location decisions have been made, the household must be readied for a long siege. While panic-buying has led to stockpiles of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, getting through eight months of confinement with others will require a great deal more, both physically and psychologically. This is especially true for households that span generations.

Long-term confinement that includes children undergoing remote schooling and adults trying to work requires designated spaces for each individual, a powerful Internet signal and Wi-Fi router, and a great deal of shared patience. Everybody in the household must understand how the coronavirus is spread, and what steps each should follow to eliminate their personal risk of passing infection to others in the home.

The virus is transmitted by droplets and fomites—it isn’t like measles, capable of drifting about in the air for hours. It dehydrates quickly if not inside water, mucus, or fomite droplets. The size of the droplets may be far below what the human eye can see, but they are gravity-sensitive, and will fall from an individual’s mouth down, eventually, to the nearest lower surface—table, desk, floor. You do not need to clean upward.

However, a newly published study, backed by the National Institutes of Health, found that the virus survives in “aerosols for up to three hours, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.” This means an uncleaned surface can pose a risk to members of the household for a very long time—a doorknob, tabletop, kitchen counter or stainless steel utensil.

Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration have posted cleaning guidelines, indicating which simple, inexpensive products can eliminate the coronavirus from surfaces in your household or work areas. Give special attention to the most commonly shared surfaces in your home or work area: door knobs, light switches, phones, faucets, toilet handles, kitchen utensils, computer keyboards, and remote controls.

The virus is killed by ultraviolet sunlight, and air flow will hasten dehydration. Do not create air flow by turning on building central air systems—you will spread contamination. If there are windows, open them wide and leave them open whenever weather conditions allow. If there are curtains or shades, open them and let sunlight pour in.

If available, wear latex or heavy-duty dishwashing gloves while cleaning anything that an individual suspected to be infected with COVID-19 has had contact with. Place all used gloves and other disposable contaminated items in a bag that can be tied closed before disposing of them with other waste. Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds immediately after removing gloves.

If you live in an apartment, condominium, or co-housing facility, ask management to post signs limiting the number of people allowed to share an elevator to however many can fit in the cars while maintaining a distance of three feet from one another. Elevator buttons should be cleaned regularly. Deliveries should be left in a common area, such as the building lobby, rather than having outsiders use the elevators and knock on household doors.

And all residents should be asked to please be mindful of contagion courtesy, covering mouths when coughing or sneezing and teaching children to do the same. After coughing or sneezing into hands, do not touch public surfaces in the building such as elevator buttons, banisters, and door handles.

It’s also important to prepare psychologically. Every family or couple has its issues, and tensions can amplify during long confinement. Common sense can ease the shared suffering.

If children are undergoing remote schooling, and parents are simultaneously working remotely, everybody needs headphones, plenty of computer bandwidth, and a designated workspace. Before stores close, make sure every user has proper cables, headphones, batteries, adapters, and other tools of the computer trade.

Printers, if they will be used, require paper and ink: Have plenty on hand.

Everybody needs routines, including exercise and recreation. Shared burdens of cooking and cleaning should be offset by shared play and fun.

Boredom and stress can suck the lifeblood out of a person. Before your home goes on lockdown, make sure your download accounts for movies and television are paid. There are plenty of good books around the house, and games and decks of cards are handy.

Plan now for your state of siege. Don’t delay. Choose where you want to survive the pandemic, with whom, and how. Your window of opportunity to act is shrinking, very fast.

Correction, March 18, 2020: San Francisco Mayor London Breed ordered her entire population to “shelter in place” this week. A previous version of this article incorrectly described the mayor.

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer.

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