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Moving to Florida in the Midst of a Pandemic – Amy Reff

A Marathon Cross-Country Road Trip to Beat State Shutdowns, Dodge a Virus, and Contemplate an Empty Country in Panic

We had a lovely view from our hotel room in Palm Springs, California.

Good morning from Palm Springs! That was the cheerful, innocent caption to the first photo I posted on day 2 of mine and my husband’s epic road trip from California to Florida in spite of, or more appropriately in our case, because of a global pandemic.

Energized by early-day possibilities, we had arrived at the hotel the evening before, had settled down after diligently spraying Lysol on doorknobs and light switches, and were greeted by the iconic palm-tree-plus-mountain skyline of the notorious desert town upon awakening.

We had a breakfast of bananas, Costco granola bars, and Trader Joe’s kefir — what was to become our regular morning repast that week — before packing up to move on to our next stop: Tucson, Arizona.

I’ll backtrack a little for context: This essay turns out to be part 2 of my previous one, Leaving California in the Midst of a Pandemic. I hadn’t intended to write a duology, but my followers (aka friends and family) were eating up my increasingly eerie photos on social media over the course of our seven-day journey, and they appealed for more on what’s happening in real time from someone they actually know.

I promised to write something up at the end, and I hope I have done it justice.

So when I started off this photographic report of the current state of affairs, I had no intention of showing the ever developing and devastating blow this virus is imposing on the United States. Nor did I envision telling a photographic tale of changing social mannerisms and developing state lockdowns.

But that’s what occurred, and it all seemed to match the melancholic progress of my posts over time.

My view of the Richmond/El Cerrito hills from our apartment in El Cerrito, California, accompanied my morning yoga routine.

On day 1, I posted my last photo from El Cerrito, California, where my husband and I shared an overpriced (er, market-value) one-bedroom apartment that at least had an excellent view of the El Cerrito and Richmond hills — just one thing I’ve already begun to miss forlornly during my morning yoga routine.

Two days before, several counties in the San Francisco Bay Area had declared a policy of shelter in place, and I had panicked that we wouldn’t get out after all. Our original plan had been to fly out on April 11, but we ended up leaving almost a month earlier in fear that things would only get worse and we would be stuck in California.

In my first essay I said we would be leaving before the month was out, and that adjusted timeline set our departure for March 31. We ended up leaving March 19 after scrambling to pack and sending our PODS container off with all our furniture and whatever we couldn’t fit in our little Mitsubishi Mirage. We hit the almost empty highway with each other, some trucks, and a few RVs as companions.

I’ve already forgotten what highway, I mean freeway, this is in the San Francisco Bay Area.

On the way out, we stopped at Berkeley Bowl where we intended to get one last dose of high-quality produce, bulk rooibos tea (for moi), and maybe some toilet paper. As we turned off the road, however, we found people wrapped all around the parking lot grasping shopping carts and standing several feet from each other.

The store had opened an hour before and normally early birds crowd right outside the doors while grabbing carts on the way in, so this organized social distancing procedure was unprecedented to say the least.

Then again, Northern Californians are known for their stringent rule-following even in the best of times — go to any Bay Area Rapid Transit platform at rush hour to witness the orderly lines of commuters politely waiting for their train to take them home for the evening (I mean, go when this pandemic is over anyway).

With mixed emotions, we drove on and ended up stopping at a Walmart in the valley where life was slower and less manic. Hopes to find toilet paper there were dashed, though (as well as in Phoenix, Arizona; Deming, New Mexico; Fort Stockton, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; and Cross City, Florida).

Walmart has no toilet paper from the west to the east coast.

Once we finally got to Palm Springs, the hotel lobby boasted a large-screen TV tuned to CNN where Governor Newsom was announcing a statewide policy of shelter in place to start at midnight. We crossed the state line into Arizona about mid-morning the next day.

The evening of day 2 we explored Tucson by following the Turquoise Trail around the city’s center. At that moment, I was still trying to take only positive photos, and I didn’t find any such scenes on that trek. Everywhere we went, even though no statewide order of shelter in place was in effect (and still is not as of this posting), shops were shuttered, restaurants were only doing takeout, and only a few people were out and about.

However, we did see a small group of teens skateboarding in El Presidio Plaza, a couple joggers winding around the slumbering Tucson Museum of Art, and less fortunate folks huddling at the bus station.

We went to New Mexico the next day, and that’s where I finally gave into the amateur photojournalist inside me. I began with empty Old Mesilla Plaza, just adjacent to Las Cruces and where a few travelers sat on benches scrolling through the latest news of the virus while my husband and I looked at the shop signs.

One sign declared that the shop could no longer stay open because its employees as well as many customers were all high risk. Another sign, that of a chocolate shop, forlornly expressed the hope to re-open in two weeks. And the Billy the Kid Gift Shop had long closed its doors, it seemed.

This chocolate shop in Old Mesilla Plaza expressed some hope for the future.

New Mexico issued a policy of shelter in place three days later.

We experienced a similar ghost-town atmosphere in San Elizario in El Paso County, Texas. Actually, not another soul was wandering about except for those in pickup trucks just occasionally passing through.

The one bright spot of the day was when we discovered gas at $1.88 per gallon in Deming, New Mexico (update: our local Costco in Brandon, Florida, is selling gas for $1.65 per gallon). Interstate 10 was also quite empty all across the country, which likely contributed to everything we had planned mostly going accordingly, for once.

Gas was $1.88 a gallon in Deming, New Mexico.

We ended day 3 in Fort Stockton, Texas, where we tried yet another Walmart in search of toilet paper. The quest did not end fruitfully. We resigned to our hotel (the third such one with a deep discount unmatched to the luxury awaiting us), after again spraying surfaces down with Lysol, and went to sleep.

The next day we eagerly stopped in San Antonio after passing through some pretty intense rainfall that let up just as we entered the city.

Sidenote: Just before we settled on moving to Tampa, my husband and I were seriously discussing this east Texas city. The draw of a subtropical climate closer to the sea and our respective families helped us eliminate San Antonio from the running, but we were still interested in checking it out in person.

We had time for one sight to see and selected the famous Riverwalk, which did not disappoint. Well, no, it was disappointing to see how empty it was of life and pizzazz. Although the umbrellas at Casa Rio were just as brilliant, as I recognized from the pictures, and the fountains were babbling, it was mostly just us, some ducks, and a few joggers keeping our respective distances.

San Antonio Riverwalk is open for joggers, but not much business is being conducted — these colorful umbrellas offer shelter for customers, albeit in vain, on the patio of Casa Rio restaurant.

In fact, we noticed everywhere we went people stepping as far to the right as possible on sidewalks and walkways and turning their heads so as not to pass particles onto one other. It was both comforting and foreboding — was behavior previously deemed rude and anti-social becoming acceptable now?

I pondered an idea for a science fiction story in which aliens visit earth and wonder about these distant, cold interactions, only to discover too late and to their detriment the reason for the lack of friendly exchanges.

That night we stayed at the Palace Inn in Katy, Texas, where we passed out from another long day of driving (we spent about eight hours on the road every day except the last one and made each long stretch more interesting by counting Amazon trucks — we made it to 73 by the end). We headed to New Orleans on day 5, and I wondered what we would find.

The Big Easy is a ghost town.

I was in this colorful city two years ago on vacation with a couple friends, and I remember being straight-up overwhelmed by the throngs of people in the French Quarter. This time, I was not stifled in the crowd because the crowd seemed to have left long ago.

Iconic Bourbon Street was boarded up and conspicuously silent. Well, one lonely street musician played a quick tune on his sax just as we were pulling up, but he was packed up before we could even exit the car.

We strolled around for a block or two and left before total despair could set in. Five minutes later, shelter in place took effect across the state of Louisiana.

We passed quickly through Mississippi on our way to our hotel in Mobile, Alabama. On day 6, although the beaches were closed in that state as proclaimed from digital road signs, we visited some old docks in Point Clear, seemingly perpetually picturesque and seeming to fit in well, through no effort of its own, with the desolation we had witnessed so far.

Point Clear, Alabama, looks like I imagine it always does?

We arrived in Florida shortly after that, and the first stop in our new home state was the Graffiti Bridge in Pensacola. I anticipated an artsy escape from the so far melancholy landscapes, but we felt the poignantly current times here as well. Spray painters declared “F*** Corona,” “Our vacation or our lives?” and the more controversial and abrasive “F*** China.”

We had our customary road sandwiches I’d been prepping daily from our mobile bunker (i.e., cooler) while swinging our feet over a ledge overlooking the bayou before we headed to the beaches.

The Graffiti Bridge in Pensacola, Florida, is colorful and opinionated.

Beaches that were closed, that is. At this moment, Florida still has no shelter-in-place order despite a petition from almost a thousand healthcare workers in the state pleading Governor DeSantis to issue one.

But travelers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and now Louisiana (we missed having to adhere to that order by just a few days!) are being told to quarantine for 14 days upon entry.

In the meantime, some counties and cities are taking their own measures by closing beaches, bars, and restaurants (this last for dine-in only, that is).

Counties across Florida are closing public beaches.

After cruising Scenic Highway 98 to only be met with more closures, we turned inland to our motel in Tallahassee. The next day we arrived in Riverview after picking up our keys from the realty and air-high-fiving the agent, got what groceries we were allowed (one package of meat per customer, one loaf of bread per customer, two cans of beans per customer, and so on), inflated our air mattress, and settled into quarantine like bosses.

Since we got here, in addition to counting the hours until our wi-fi is hooked up and our furniture arrives in a few days, we frequently discuss what would have happened if we had waited any longer or had continued planning that trip to Hawaii — which is now enforcing quarantine for all visitors, so we never would have gone anyhow because we were supposed to hop on Southwest on April 1st!

For the moment, though, no symptoms are evident in this particular household, and the sun is shining in the Sunshine State. In fact, we’re in the midst of a heat wave in the midst of this pandemic. So on top of hand sanitizer, I’m also donning sunblock and a baseball cap whenever I get my daily dose of anti-social exercise.

On the walking paths of my gated community, neighbors politely nod, but no one makes a move to truly introduce themselves … new friendships are on hold for now, I guess. For what it’s worth, I extend to you and to those in my new neighborhood an airy high five along with a good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and good night from Tampa, spoken from at least six feet away.

And, hey, stay healthy and happy at home!

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