This week marks the second anniversary of my shift from work-at-work to work-at-home.
Back in March 2020, I arrived home with a box of stuff from the office and told my wife this was serious. I could be working like this for a whole month — no exaggeration! — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal newsroom had been my second home since 1980. But at first, I looked forward to working shoeless and indulging in beach-dude fashion habits. The lines between leisurewear, beachwear, sleepwear and work clothes blurred immediately. No morning drive to the next town. Better coffee and all I could brew! Work would be easier, more focused. I couldn’t have guessed that I was settling in for years of being my own office.
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A lot of other offices emptied out in those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. By May 2020, 35% of employees were working from home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even now, 13% still do.
That was the same spring the governor ordered restaurants and bars across Florida closed. The county ordered Volusia County beaches closed that April. A first. Driving around the emptied beachside, the town felt like a place getting ready for an expected hurricane hit. All that was missing was the plywood. What followed was a summer of layoffs, furloughs, a state unemployment system website that appeared designed to fail, homemade cloth facemasks, and runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the supermarket.
By mid-July, COVID cases in Florida would peak at just under 12,000 a day, which seemed impossible at the time.
By that time, I became an experienced hand at Zoom, FaceTime and Microsoft Team meetings. I knew not to be the guy who leaves his microphone unmuted, annoying everyone with keyboard clicking and inappropriate laughter. I even straightened out the home office for a better backdrop. Got cardboard box piles out of camera range. Stopped working at my kids’ old homework desk and bought a big person’s desk. After all, I could be doing this for another few months. No exaggeration.
That was the spring when I attended my grandson’s first birthday party — showing up as just one of a dozen little squares on the screen filled with cooing relatives. Not the same as being there, but parties and flying to other cities were out of the question. That would be for next year. Things that would await the arrival of a vaccine that would usher in normal times.
A vaccine that arrived at the start of the new year just as the next infection spike was ramping up. Florida cases that January peaked at an average of just under 16,000 a day, something that seemed impossible at the time.
I waited in a long line of cars in the county health department parking lot with my 89-year-old dad to get the Moderna vaccine. People over 65 are more prone to COVID and people over 80 are very much prone to COVID, so we felt relieved and grateful to be vaccinated.
Dad died that winter of everything except COVID. In the process, I experienced what it was like to be walking around a busy hospital intensive care unit operating at 75% capacity. The work of the stressed staff was nothing short of amazing. At the top of the January 2020 spike, Florida has a daily seven-day average of 3,800 COVID hospitalizations.
Ups and downs of COVID rates
But the vaccine did bring the numbers down quickly. By my first anniversary of working at home, I was eating at restaurants again (albeit alfresco), getting my hair cut by a professional, and getting ready to fly. I confidently strode maskless into the hardware store. I even saw games at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, which after being closed more than a year, opened for a new season (with seating restrictions to prevent disease spread). Things were looking so good that plans for returning to the office were floated.
But that summer, I heard from my son in England that things were locking down again there. A new variant of COVID, the delta variant, had popped up. And in short order, the variant arrived here. By August, cases in Florida shot up, peaking at 23,800 a day in August, something that seemed impossible at the time. Return-to-office talk shut down.
That spike burned out by fall. Again, I traveled, ate indoors in restaurants and stored the masks away. I got the COVID booster, this time in the comfort of a Publix pharmacy instead of in a car line. And braced myself for leaving my cozy home office where I can watch the bird feeder from the window. Normal times were around the corner.
But no. A new virus variant, the omicron, had emerged before the holidays. The number of cases in Florida shot up to 65,500 a day by January, something that seemed impossible at the time.
And now, I see things are normalizing once more. Again, I’m making travel plans. Again, masks are back in the drawer. Will this hold up?
I look for opinions on this online where everyone is an expert on infectious disease, microbiology, biostatistical modeling and messenger RNA. An age of uncertainty certainly draws out people who are certain about everything. But as I start the third year of home officing, I’ve not only learned the software but how to hang loose, not to fool myself into thinking I know what’s around the bend, and to buy plane tickets before the numbers go up again.
Will they stay down this time? Talk to me on my next anniversary.
Mark Lane is a News-Journa
l columnist. His email is [email protected].