Bill Nemitz’s grandson, Juneau, admires the new “tree” last weekend at Pine Point Beach in Scarborough Andrea Nemitz photo

The week began pleasantly enough. Last Sunday, eager to see our two grandsons but skittish about going into their home or have them come into ours, my wife, Andrea, and I rendezvoused with our son and daughter-in-law, along with Gus, 4, and Juneau, 2, at an unusually crowded Pine Point Beach in Scarborough.

We elbow-bumped with the boys, COVID-19 style, in the parking lot, suppressing that instinct to sweep them up into a bear hug and a peck them on the cheek.

Out on the beach, we walked for a while and then stopped for snacks, carefully passing out (with gloved hands) the Holy Donuts we’d picked up along the way.

Gus and Juneau, fruity frosting ringing their lips, began building “bridges” with pieces of driftwood. Then Gus spotted one the size of a small tree, partially embedded in sand and seaweed, and began the long, arduous process of singlehandedly extricating it and dragging more than 100 feet to where we were sitting.

“No, I can do it,” he insisted when I approached to help. “Let me do it.”

And he did. Upon triumphantly dropping the spindly log at our feet, Gus stepped back while his father dug a hole in the soft sand and, voila, the “beach tree” was upright once again.

Gus beamed. Juneau, dwarfed by his brother’s monument to diligence and determination, looked up at it in awe.

For that moment, at least, all was well.

Later that day, safely back home, we got news from Virginia. My sister, 67, had been sick since Friday with all the symptoms of COVID-19 – fever, cough, flulike aches and pains, unable to do much more than lie in bed.

Her primary care physician gave her a flu test Monday, which proved negative. “You need a COVID-19 test,” she was told.

But the medical practice had no tests, instead referring her to the local public health department. There, they told her she didn’t qualify for a test because she’d neither been outside the country nor come into contact with someone who’d already tested positive for the virus. She called the CDC, sat on hold for more than an hour and was finally told, “You qualify for a test. Get one immediately.”

More telephoning. More pleading. Finally, on Tuesday, she managed to get tested. The good news as I write this on Saturday morning is that her fever has broken. The disturbing news is that she still hasn’t received her test result and she’s still coughing, short of breath and feeling dizzy when she gets out of bed.

I’m frightened for her, along with her husband, who’s 65 and hasn’t left her side.

And so it goes.

Hard as these days are, the real source of the anxiety now spreading across the land is how infinitely harder things may soon become.

I spent a good chunk of the week talking by telephone with people who are still out there, still trying to perform their daily duties, still trying to put in perspective a crisis that refuses to be pigeonholed.

I spoke with four postal carriers, all with walking routes in Portland, all alarmed by what they see as a lack of sufficient sanitation inside their staging center on Forest Avenue in Portland and the prospect of catching or transmitting COVID-19 by the simple act of delivering the mail.

“Why do we have to be delivering third-class mail right now?” one asked.

Good question.

“I don’t understand why I’m still delivering mail to a business that is closed,” mused another.

Good point.

After talking with the mail carriers, I spent over two hours reading the results of a just-completed experiment conducted under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, along with news stories about the risk of transmission via the mail. The collective conclusion: While the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can survive on packaging surfaces for 24 hours or longer, it degrades rapidly over that time and the actual chances of transmission via touching a contaminated package are minimal.

Or, as U.S. Postal Service spokesman Steve Doherty put it in an email to me Friday, “The CDC, the World Health Organization and the Surgeon General have indicated that there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail.”

That’s reassuring, at least when I head out to my mailbox. Still, if I’m one of those carriers, “currently no evidence” isn’t exactly an ironclad guarantee. Thus, I look at these people as quiet heroes as they deliver much-needed medications, Social Security checks and other vital pieces of mail to those of us huddled inside our homes.

As for the carrier center, Doherty said, the USPS “uses CDC guidelines for frequencies, methods and products to be used in our cleaning protocols.”

I just looked up the old Postal Service motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” At some point, will “invisible pathogens” be added to that list?

I did manage to sneak out once later in the week. On Friday, eager for a change of scenery, my wife and I got in the car and went for a drive.

“Look at all those trucks,” I said as we traversed a stretch of the Maine Turnpike and saw the tractor-trailer rigs – one from Walmart headed north, one from Hannaford headed south – racing to keep the stores supplied. “Those truckers are heroes, too – imagine what would happen if they suddenly stopped driving.”

Remember these people if and when you do venture out in the coming days. Take a minute to thank the cashier, the kid who collects grocery carts in the parking lot, the oil deliveryman who keeps your furnace from running dry. Working in a service job these days has become not only an act of faith but one of bravery.

And then there are the restaurants. Sen. Angus King called me Friday with a great idea: If you can afford it, buy a gift certificate or three from your favorite restaurant – or other small businesses, for that matter – to help tide them over until good times return. Consider it a bridge loan, not to mention a tangible acknowledgement that we’re all in this together.

“I’m calling it ‘viralnotvirus,’” said King, who got the idea from his wife, Mary Herman. “If enough of us do this, we can keep our friends and neighbors in business through these tough times and put some fun in the bank for better days.”

More importantly, King added, while the federal government grapples with the crushing logistical and financial challenges posed by the rapidly spreading pandemic, “this is something we can do as individuals to help get us through this.”

Early this morning, Andrea headed out to buy groceries and pick up a computer cord from her office in Portland, where she hasn’t worked in over a week. Because I’ve been dealing with cancer the past five years, she won’t let me go anywhere near a public facility.

By leaving shortly after 7 a.m., she figured she could get in and out of the Hannaford supermarket here in Buxton with minimal social contact.

The parking lot was packed.

Onward she continued to the Hannaford store adjacent to the Maine Mall.

That one was virtually empty.

Still, as she left the store, another shopper came up close behind her at the exit. Holding her arm up behind her, Andrea looked back and, as pleasantly as she could, said, “I’m keeping my distance.”

The woman smiled apologetically, as if she’d forgotten this new protocol we call “social distancing,” and backed away.

One way or another, fellow Mainers, we will get through this. But how we get through it depends on each and every one of us, whether it’s dropping off a few rolls of toilet paper to an older neighbor, ordering curbside takeout from the local restaurant (supper tonight will be fried chicken from The Buxton Common), maybe sending a note of thanks to the health care worker in your family or circle of friends. If anyone deserves our undying gratitude, it’s those doctors, nurses and other providers who, day after agonizing day, step squarely into harm’s way.

Thursday evening, from the safety of our living room, Andrea and I taped a “Happy Birthday” video for Gus, whose 4th birthday party had to be canceled. Others who had planned to attend did the same.

No question Gus was disappointed. But like the little guy said back on the beach, “I can do it.”

So, if we try hard enough, can we all.


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