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My business is essential, at least according to DoD guidelines – our customers build the trucks your cable, power, cell phone, and sundry other utility and delivery companies use to make staying at home a bit less awful. In many respects you could say this shutdown passed us by: you cannot do manufacturing at home, engineers are next to useless after a few weeks if they lack for hardware to test, while everyone else has been needed to answer the phones, place orders, receive goods, and ship. We only had 2 people working from home during the entirety of the shutdown, and 1 person on reduced hours because daycares were basically shut. But our industrial park was otherwise a ghost town tucked behind a ghostly strip mall, with ghostly commuters on drives to work and home again.
As Ohio rapidly progressed through one closure after another, until all that was left were the “essential” businesses, everything took on an unreal character. The last weekend before the stores were largely ordered shut was, of course, the great toilet-paper panic. I was in our grocery several nights before the panic, and the only things the stores were out of were chicken broth and Combos, and that one was because they were BOGO. 4 days later the store was picked clean, except for fresh fruits and vegetables (I don’t know why kale is perfectly suitable for other uses).
At work, though, we were nervous. We had no idea if Ohio was going to do what it had only done during blizzards, and send the police out to pull over drivers to check papers, so I drafted a letter for my employees to carry, and we posted our “Essential Supplier” letters from our customers, just in case some inspector came to our door (as they were doing initially in one of the other regional suburbs until residents made their displeasure known). I also put up cleanliness and social distancing guidelines around the workplace and held a meeting to explain them. And then we waited.
Several employees have school-age children, and the closure of the schools created problems. Other employees I knew had anxiety issues or needy relatives. 1 week in I told everyone “for the duration, I’m not counting individual days off against your PTO allotment. If you need a day here and there, take a day, just make sure your work is covered.” I told my production manager “If orders slump, rotate days off, dismiss early, just don’t let people get bored, because then they’ll stress out – this includes you too.”
And orders did slump. One of my customers told me he lost 90% of his business when his state locked down – not only were his vehicles not considered “essential”, with costs ongoing but income halting for his own customers, they had canceled 6 months’ worth of future orders. Almost every customer at lease slowed down, social distancing rules often halved their workforces. Ford, GM, and Chrysler all closed their doors, ending shipments of truck chassis and motors, so unless they had pool lots to draw on, some customers even idled entirely, despite being “essential.”
At least our commutes were far quicker. My furthest flung employees usually have anywhere from a 45 minute to an hour commute most days – these were down to 15 or 20 minutes. Better still, the drivers that were out were the ones who drive with purpose, not the left-lane hogs and slowpokes who approach speed limits only logarithmically. Road fatalities were down massively, though I knew the victims in one horrific fatal wreck. Of course, annoyances from door to door solicitors were also down, and I was able to use the lockdown to indefinitely cancel the visit from an angry customer from out of state (he was demanding we engineer something for him, and we had refused because he would guarantee no actual volume). And we were also gracefully let out of a trade show contract for a show we suspected of being useless.
And so, Monday through Friday, each and every week, we were there, and business seemed to go on normally. As the lockdown stories came out from our neighbors and through the news, people started thanking me for staying open. “Sure, it’s been rough, not being able to go anywhere, not being able to see family, but at least we can come here every day and do some real work,” said one to me. We looked up and down at the empty parking lots nearby and could hear the emptiness of the roads – it was lonely out there. We passed by dozens of empty stores, empty offices, and empty factories.
Of course the lockdown could not continue indefinitely. Neither could the delightfully stress-free commutes. Neither could the ever-so-stressful remote learning stuff for the kids. In Ohio, the stores and restaurants are gradually reopening, if the economic ruin did not close them for good (and there are some places not coming back at all). The school work is done until the autumn. And the death-march of my appliances seems to have stopped (our dishwasher was one of 9 to fail or need major repairs among people we know directly). The commutes for the last week have been annoying again, and I think many of the worst drivers forgot over the prior 8 weeks how to drive at all – that first day back I was nearly t-boned, sideswiped, and rear-ended by 3 different drivers over the time of 10 minutes.
It doesn’t feel haunted out there anymore, but I wouldn’t say it’s back to life yet either. My wife and I went out for lunch today on our town’s main street. Some places were open, many still were not, and stores were mostly still closed entirely. I don’t know how long it will be before people rush out. My church is open again, but attendance is by invite only, and the empty pews are filled with icons to stand in for the rest of us – we’ve also set up an online donation system so that even the giving seems done by spirits. The kids are on summer break – but it’s no break at all because they’ve been home for nearly 3 months already. Lent has come and gone, but never really ended either. We are still chasing the ghosts of a season, a year, a lifetime stolen from us, and wondering when we get to wake from it all.
Memorial Day Main Street is empty.Published in