March Madness: Extroverts the Not-So-Silent Casualties of COVID19

The incessant reporting by government and mainstream news media of those infected with COVID19 is horrifying, no doubt.

But no reasonable person can deny that “social distancing” has affected every walk of American life. 

With thousands of restaurants, bars, churches, schools, gymnasiums, libraries, barber shops, sporting arenas, theaters, banks, and businesses closed under mandate of the State – say nothing of the new norm of locked-door government meetings – millions of Arizonans have been deprived, or have otherwise surrendered, their “inalienable” rights to peacefully gather in public with other humans.

All in the name of protecting “public health.”  

Comments by Melrosians who chose not to “shelter-in-place”:

“I’m afraid people are going to die spiritually and emotionally,” said Steven Stradley, a patron of Copper Star Coffee in Melrose a week ago. “We’ve been isolated enough.”

Stradley, 61, was with his two kids, a boy and a girl both under the age of 10, March 28th.

They’d been staying in a nearby hotel for weeks, waiting for travel restrictions to be lifted.

 “I love this place,” Stradley said as his son and daughter finished vocabulary homework on digital tablets, sharing a bench underneath the shade of a tree near a fountain. “I didn’t quite know what to do with them.” 

Stradley said that he usually takes his kids to museums and other places of local interest, all of which have been closed due to austerity measures aimed at preventing the spread of the COVID19 virus.

“There’s really only two-to-ten percent of the population that is vulnerable (to COVID19),” Stradley said, as his kids played in front of Copper Star. “Yet, we’re willing to close down all (recreation)?”

Stradley said he was referring to strict house-arrest orders he’s read about in California, and his fears that Arizona might follow suit.

He said he was pleased, however, to see more children out in neighborhoods since schools were cancelled.

“I hope (Copper Star) is considered an essential business,” said Dulcinea, another Copper Star patron that day. “We come here at least five days a week, though sometimes we slack.” 

Dulcinea, 41, and her daughter Andromeda, 23, both grew up in Phoenix and have lived in Melrose about fifteen years. 

The former was dressed in a Wonder Woman pajama suit for no particular reason other than that she loves the comic book hero, and it was something she can still do in public on a Saturday. 

“I was telling my coworkers that I’ve turned into the dog,” Dulcinea said with a laugh. “One of my kids has to go and walk me every morning.” 

Dulcinea works for a software company now from home – like millions of other Americans – while Andromeda still works in person at retailer Total Wine and More.

“They gave me a paper that said ‘thank you for risking your life,” Andromeda said. “It also said, ‘you’re mandated to show up to work.” 

Andromeda said she was also given a sign to put in her car to prevent being pulled over by police.

Both ladies carried iced coffee drinks outside to Copper Star’s patio so they could continue to chat.

They giggled at the idea the State government considered alcohol sales “essential” business. 

Say nothing of private business rights, or the ability of adults to decide for themselves what is or is not safe, The First Amendment to the United States Constitution (and hundreds of years of case law) have explicitly prohibited government from preventing peaceful public gatherings for prolonged periods, even in times of war or natural disaster. 

As such, the vocabulary used at all levels of government has volleyed for weeks between what Americans are “allowed” to do, versus what they “should” do, according to medical scientists and individual state leaders.

The effect is staggering. 

Arizona is entering its third week of unprecedented closures to private business, and fear to exercise civil liberties previously unheard-of in the free world. 

Much of it due to social peer pressure in digital media, suggesting that humans who wish to enjoy their lives together are dangerous to others.

This during a Presidential election year when a radical minority of Democrats failed to oust the sitting Republican Commander-in-Chief, who was accused of rigging his own election. 

Somehow, Americans are supposed to believe that government paychecks will compensate for the psychological damage that weeks deprived of public interaction, without the fear of disease or legal reprise, has caused for those who regularly seek out the physical company of others.

“I’m having a real rough time,” said Jorge, a frequent flier at Copper Star. “I need people, or else I get pretty bad.”

Jorge, in his sixties, can usually be found at the bar working on his book, and chit-chatting with staff and other customers.

“They can’t shut down everything,” he said. “I won’t make it.”

Jorge said he has battled severe depression his whole life and worried how long the isolation would last.

“There’s a fine line between shutting things down and anarchy,” said Audrey Mirzoyan, another regular who stopped by for some jo, to go. “I’v been coming to this coffee shop for 12 years, and every time it’s been fun.”

Mirzoyan said she’s gardening while she waits for people to come together again.

“I don’t know if it’s the right time to buy plants,” she explained. “But it’s something to do.”

Copper Star is one of at least eight, non-chain eateries in Melrose trying to survive the government lockdown.

“We’re just doing what we can to keep my employees employed,” said Copper Star Owner Bill Sandweg. “This may be new to us, but humans have been doing (life) for one-hundred-thousand years.”

Sandweg converted the old auto service station into a drive-through coffee shop during the Great Recession.

Copper Star’s dining room is normally packed elbow to elbow on weekends, and serves as a neutral space in which people either study or converse.

Few topics of conversation are quiet, and none are censored. 

Like many non-chain coffee houses, local artists sell paintings and photography on the walls. 

The art is usually Arizona themed.

It is not uncommon for groups to gather to organize political petitions, or even for a local politician to make an appearance.

Even Phoenix’s Mayor Kate Gallego, who originally ordered the closure of bars and restaurants without taking a vote of the City Council, has been seen at Copper Star on occasion.

Last Saturday, however, the unofficial civic/artisan meeting spot offered only stacked chairs in corners, and brightly painted stars on the floor, suggesting where patrons should stand.

About every third patron stopped at the door to wait for a signal they had permission to enter, despite signs welcoming them.

It was a scene right out of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of the 1980’s. 

Or at least it would have been, if Copper Star’s quirky and unpredictable staff weren’t doing their best to offset the psychological damage caused by what is being reported in news media as universal precautions for the pandemic.

“Hey, these things are black,” said Erica, a long-time Copper Star barista, about gloves the staff now wears. “So, I’d wear them even if there wasn’t a pandemic!” 

Erica, in her early twenties, wore a rock band t-shirt and her hair two shades of lime green.

She turned momentarily somber when asked what she thought of current world events. 

“I’m grateful to still be here,” she said. “I’m grateful to have a job.”

Her coworker Ian, in his late thirties, wears glasses and a beard, and looks like he was plucked right out of a backpacker’s magazine.

…or at least a coffee house in the northwest.

“I think we are all being punished,” he opined last week. “We are being punished by Earth for our stupidity.”

Ian said he believed that critical thinkers must protect the truth of what has happened, and teach generations that follow.

“They could have asked us to close for a week and get it over with,” Ian said of the City and State governments prolonged restrictions. “There should have been a vote.”

Sunday mornings at Copper Star used to include live jazz performances.

The sounds of saxophone, chit-chat and laughter could be heard for blocks down Heatherbrae Avenue.

Since the lockdown, however, there has only been the sharp hiss of an espresso machine. 

“The latte’s are great,” said Lex, a 22-year-old who had only discovered Copper Star March 28. “Arizonans are pretty laid back and friendly.”

Lex and her boyfriend Jonathan, also 22, moved to Arizona from Maryland last year. 

Both came upon Copper Star after Sandweg closed the dining room, to comply with orders by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to limit business to take-out service. 

“Politicians never want to be blamed for any problem,” Lex stated matter-of-factly. “And they all want to take credit for the solution.”

Lex and Jonathan explained they needed to go for a walk, after spending the previous two weeks at home. 

“We want to get into hiking but we’re worried about the social distancing guidelines,” she said. “We wouldn’t be doing as many hallucinogens if not for the virus.”

Jonathan explained they would rather stay home to eat psychedelic mushrooms than risk getting arrested for going to a City park, as they suspected might happen.

“My Dad’s fiancee is a nurse,” he said. “So yes, I believe the (threat) is real.”

Both also said they didn’t want to get anyone else sick.

Neither sat six feet apart, as suggested for all human beings by government.

“We’ve been watching a lot of videos on YouTube,” Lex added. “History is more of a circle than it is a straight line.” 

The couple said they were particularly interested in how the Roman Empire expanded beyond the point it could maintain a society, and then plunged Europe into the dark ages. 

Three days later, Tuesday March 31, Sandweg closed the patio and dining room completely, but continued to keep the drive-through open to customers.

Kirsten Eby rolled through the service lane with her infant son in a stroller about 4 p.m.

She was waited on by Jane, a long-time Copper Star baristo in his late twenties.

“I like my coffee shop and I like to support local people,” Eby said while waiting for Jane to return with her order. “I know I’m stressed out trying to deal with all of this, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Eby has lived just up Seventh Avenue in Melrose the last few years. 

“(Copper Star) is just a friendly, comfortable coffee shop,” she said. “I came here all throughout my pregnancy and Bill and I discussed other things I should drink besides caffeine.”

Eby is an elementary school counsellor now working from home.  

“I’m trying to figure out how to do counselling without seeing any of my kids,” she said. “It’s complicated.”

She will be at home the rest of the academic year according to the State closures. 

“The kids feel like they’re on vacation, but the parents feel panicked,” Eby said. “I’m doing a lot more conversations with parents about how to work at home and provide education, because now they’re trying to be teachers as well.”

She was torn on the subject of COVID19 social distancing.

“In some ways I feel like, ‘Gosh’ are we overreacting?” she said. “On the other hand I feel like we’re not doing enough.”

Eby and her husband were supposed to celebrate her birthday on the 21st at a March Madness game in Las Vegas, but the tournament was cancelled. 

“We were excited,” she said with a laugh. “But then we were like, ‘well, I guess not!” 

What is the Future of Business and Civil Liberties?

Like every other business owner in Melrose who provide a place for social interaction, Sandweg is uncertain when it will be safe, both medically and legally, to reopen his doors.

Regardless of the law, the damage to  businesses is un-precedented, far surpassing the few days of voluntary safety closures that were commmon following the 9/11 Terror Attacks in 2001, and any pandemic in American history.

“We’re going to get through this,” Sandweg said emphatically. “Boeing (Airlines) may not make it, (President) Trump may not make it, (Speaker of the House) Nancy Peolosi may not make it, but we are all going to be here in Central Phoenix years from now.”

Sandweg, from Mesa, said he closed the dining room and patio completely after consulting with his staff of mostly twenty-somethings, which had already been reduced to a skeleton crew the last few weeks.  

“Look, Romans are now Italians, and Greeks are Greeks,” he added somewhat cryptically. “The British Empire fell and yet people still go to London and carry umbrellas.”

President Donald Trump said in a Press Conference April 4 that he wished people could gather in church by Easter Sunday, April 12. 

“The cure can’t be worse than the disease,” The President said. “We must remember that.” 

The President also urged Americans to follow the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control.

No one in the White House Press Core asked the President or his staff about freedom of association or expression during that conference, nor to clarify his stance on martial law.

Historically, government officials are not allowed to restrict freedoms, including shutting down businesses or ordering people to remain in their homes, unless they are accused of crime, there has been an act of war, or there is widespread devastation and destruction.

The difference is one of logistics, in which emergency workers and the military may have to deploy in communities to rescue injured, prevent rampant crime, or evacuate areas.

In such cases, legislatures and elected executives are empowered to temporarily hand over civilian authority to the military.

So far, both Trump and the U.S. Congress have stopped short of suspending the Bill of Rights per-se, but have left it up to state and local leaders to navigate enforcement of restrictions.

The legality of such arguments may be a moot point, as thousands of business owners comply with what they see in digital media, and Arizona courts are closed for most matters.

And while a pandemic may qualify as a disaster, natural or otherwise, Arizona has not seen widespread disruption to normal society other than that caused by government.  

Time will tell if shutting down all normal life in Arizona will curb the spread of the virus, but medical evidence of those infected has not been released to the public.

There is simply no way for the general public to verify the numbers being reported by government, or if the victims also had other contributing causes to their deaths.

The privacy of victims and their families should be respected, but autopsies performed by government are matters of pubic safety, especially in a health crisis.

Medical Examiner and autopsy reports are public record in Arizona, at least they were prior to COVID19.

Meanwhile, emergency measures passed by the State Legislature included several exceptions for people to leave their homes, including shopping and outdoor recreation.

They also allow people to continue with what the government deems “essential” business services.

These range from groceries stores to real-estate services, though professions such as barbers are being sent home.

Little has been said about penalties for businesses that continue, or when the restrictions will be lifted.

“I’ve seen police and other people come to parks and count how many people are there,” Stradley said last week, while watching his son and daughter trade turns riding a scooter on the sidewalk in front of Copper Star. “But no, I haven’t seen anyone get arrested.” 

Stradley said he suspects that most Americans have been conditioned to accept limitations to their rights, regardless of the wording of actual laws, or logic behind them.

“There’s no true safe place,” Stradley said he reminds his kids regularly. “I tell them the only safe place is you.”

On Sunday, April 5, at least 5 cars were in the drive-through at Copper Star at 11 am.

The lobby has reopened for take out.