We, collectively, are in strange times. I work for an organization in the Department of Defense. What we do, in a nutshell, is match forces to capabilities required either overseas or here in the United States. These days, the focus is on medical units and personnel that can be spared from military clinical practice to support the civilian populations in New York, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, and California. We are “essential.”
I am the Deputy Chief of the Contingency Plans Development and Assessment. We have reduced manning to about 40% in the office, everyone else is connecting by virtual desktop from home. We are rotating weeks. I have Cell One, the Branch Chief has Cell Two. The cell working in the office for the week is working all the classified projects while the cell working remotely is doing administrative work, their annual appraisals, professional reading, and training. We are expected to be able to get to the office within an hour if world events demand all hands on deck. We are not permitted to travel more than 50 miles from the office without permission. At any time, 24/7. It is the nature of the work.
During the week when Cell One is in the office, the morning commute comes about an hour earlier than usual. It usually takes me anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to navigate from my home in Chesapeake to the Navy compound in Norfolk that hosts my organization. With the Virginia Governor’s order for people to shelter at home, my commute is now is about 30 minutes. I think 75% of the regular traffic is off the road as Hampton Roads residents stay home.
I roll into the base as the sun is announcing its arrival off the Virginia Coast. Handing your ID to the Gate guard for inspection is no longer the norm. You hold it bar code side up out the window to allow the gate sentry to scan it with a reader. Once your face matches the face on his handheld device, you are granted entry.
Parking is no longer an issue. Pre-COVID-19, if you arrived after 7:45 a.m., you risk not finding a spot in the parking lot across the street from the windowless building that takes up an entire block on the base. I have nicknamed this concrete monster, “the cave.” Now, as I pull in around 6:45, I have my pick of spots. I have even landed in one of the three strangely oversized spaces in the sixth row three times this week.
The weirdness begins at the entrance to the cave. Because of the virus, there is a “one door, one floor, and one head (bathroom)” policy in effect. People who work on the second floor can use the main entrance into the foyer where they can either access the stairs or the elevator. First-floor employees have to walk halfway down the street to the side entrance. There I am met by a sailor who asks me a series of questions to determine if I have any symptoms of the virus. He/she then takes a thermometer to shoot a temp from my forehead. I find this odd because I have just walked 700 feet from the Jeep in 48° air. My temp ranged between 89° and 94° all week. I am not a doctor, but I did see the flaw in this process. When I asked why we’re doing this, I was told “orders.” OK! I was then given a wristband to allow me to access the first floor for the day.
Inside we have to be spaced at least six feet apart. Cell One has three people, and our desks meet the distance requirement. As of today, we need to be masked and have gloves on while moving around the office. There is no stopping to catch up with co-workers or conduct sidebars after meetings. There are no meetings, not in person, at least. Conversations are conducted on the phone, on the computer or, by video teleconferencing. Even if the person you need to speak with is in the same cubicle bank, electronic communications are the norm. The stairs from the spaces on the first floor to the second floor are off-limits. Our own version of Upstairs/Downstairs is conducted electronically. There is one exception for planners who need to access a classified computer system that is contained in one specially shielded room on the second floor.
Lunch runs to Subway on the base or to places up and down Hampton Boulevard are no longer possible. We are brown-bagging it and wiping the refrigerator down at the end of the day. I am not a germaphobe by nature, but the two cylinders of Clorox wipes in my desk have been getting a workout. My work station, mouse, monitors, and keyboard have never been this clean.
I have always considered myself to be a “situational extrovert.” I can rise to the occasion and be large and in charge. But I am really an introvert. I am not having any issue adjusting to conducting business electronically instead of wasted hours spent in meetings with eight other people where nothing is decided. I am actually getting more accomplished now that no one is stopping by my desk to have a conversation. I do feel bad for my workmates who are extroverts. The social butterflies in the office are taking this hard. When one of them comes by my desk, I don’t even have to say a word, the look tells them that social distancing is being enforced.
This is the week predicted to be the critical week. Perhaps we will start to see the downside of the curve that we have endeavored to flatten. We must be vigilant in our actions to tame the virus. This is not the time to let down our guard.
In the months ahead, I hope to see the country and the world adjust to whatever the new normal is going to look like. I’d like to take Matt, Nancy, Scott, and Alex out for dinner. I am looking forward to a road trip to Savannah to see my favorite doctor in person instead of on Google Duo. I want to go to Scituate to see my parents.
I look forward to better days after weathering the ones we are navigating at present.
Be safe, be smart, and be at home. That is what is really essential.