One of my first memories of moving into Hinton James dorm freshman year involves looking over the third-floor balcony and reading a spray-painted message on the outdoor basketball court: “Go back to Jersey.”
Having just moved to Chapel Hill from Ohio, I considered the message more amusing than insulting.
A year or so later, I chuckled when a professor told our class that home-grown UNC students of his generation joked that New Jersey needed no more than one public university. The rest of its college-age students headed south to enroll at Carolina.
Much has changed in 30 years. But one suspects that most North Carolinians still have little interest in emulating the Garden State. That thought came to mind as I read “The Quarantining,” Noah Rothman’s Commentary magazine account of his family’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rothman’s story takes place in New Jersey. Yet much of it will sound familiar to families coping with the pandemic in the Tar Heel State. The similarities bode ill for residents of both states.
To be fair, the tale begins with an episode unique to the states surrounding New York City. On March 28 President Trump floated the idea of a quarantine for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut as coronavirus “hot spots.”
The quarantine never happened. But the prospect of such an action affected Rothman. “In retrospect, the experience of having the president pull the rug out from under us … created a psychological moat for my wife and me.”
Here’s where the story takes a familiar turn for those of us in North Carolina. “It wasn’t just the virus that was conspiring to keep us in a state of unabated trepidation but our elected officials, too,” Rothman writes. “At any time, the shifting and fragile consensus around whatever public policy pertained to whatever ill-defined phase of the lockdown we were in could shatter. We should prepare accordingly.”
Those words could apply to any residents of this state pondering the impact of Phase 1, the “soft” or modified Phase 2, and the promised Phase 3 of N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s economic shutdown. Rather than deal with the certainty of decisions based solely on metrics and timelines, residents have struggled to divine the meaning of shifting pronouncements from daily press briefings.
Another observation from Rothman’s New Jersey-based perspective strikes too close to home. “The contradictions associated with the lockdown were enough to drive you insane,” he argues. “The seamless transition public officials made from advocating extraordinary measures designed to spare the health-care system from catastrophic collapse to the unceasing perpetuation of those measures until the risk of new infections became negligible was just the latest exasperation.”
North Carolinians share that exasperation. They’ve watched livelihoods crumble as state and local governments have ordered them to stay cooped up. Meanwhile, no hospital in this state has faced a threat of collapse — unless that threat emanates from the disappearance of elective surgeries and other non-COVID-19 business.
“To contemplate all these inconsistencies was to risk a brain hemorrhage,” Rothman writes of his COVID-19 experience. “The smartest thing to do, then, was to decline to think. A sense of resignation washed over us. And the deeper we went into our self-imposed isolation, the harder it became to escape it.”
The Commentary associate editor alludes to another issue that should concern anyone who has endured weeks of relative inactivity — North Carolinians as much as Jersey dwellers.
“The comfort and routine that we experienced at home had become a precious source of stability,” Rothman recalls. “The conscious understanding that we were imprisoned for the greater good did not obviate the nagging notion that it was all too much to endure in perpetuity. But no matter how much we resented the conditions into which we had been consigned, the idea of breaking out of this routine — of defying the contradictory orders, since they made no sense — grew ever more daunting.”
Similar concerns already have played a role in government estimates of North Carolina’s pandemic recovery.
Chief legislative economist Barry Boardman recently told lawmakers that experts expect a fully reopened state economy at some point between July 1 and Sept. 30. But he warned that business will not return to a “100% level” right away. Full reopening from government restrictions “doesn’t mean that you flip a switch” and return immediately to pre-pandemic economic conditions, Boardman explained.
I’m not asking anyone to “go back to Jersey.” Nor do I bear any ill will for those who’ve traded life in the Garden State for economic or educational opportunities here.
I wish leaders in our state had done more to distinguish their actions from the “contradictions,” “inconsistencies,” and “ill-defined” economic lockdown phases that plagued our northern neighbors. North Carolinians reap no benefits from sharing New Jersey residents’ pain.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.