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Newsletter: Email pleasantries in a pandemic

A person wearing a protective mask walks by a mural on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, May 1, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Even amid the jargon-filled wasteland of modern email correspondence, there remains nary a phrase more ubiquitous in inboxes than “I hope this finds you well” and variations thereof.

But what happens when a novel virus wreaking destruction across the globe makes the very presumption that anyone might be “well” seem absurd?

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For many, figuring out how — and if — to address the pandemic-shaped elephant lurking in every room has added a unique wrinkle to their inboxes as they navigate personal and work correspondence.

On one hand, the question of how to handle email pleasantries in the face of the coronavirus might seem laughably unimportant when so many are sick, dying and struggling to pay the rent. On the other hand, these are not necessarily two separate Venn diagrams.

I am more aware than ever when I hit “send” that I have little idea about what the person on the receiving end’s life might look like at the moment. And that even if they’ve been relatively untouched by the worst of things, their life is still drastically different than it was six weeks ago.

Of course, saying nothing at all is always an option. But when a once-ordinary trip to the store or walk around the block already deserves an entry in the cognitive dissonance Olympics, it can feel odd to carry on casual correspondence without at least acknowledging the shared circumstances at hand.

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The question, then, is what to say. Over a relatively short period of time, a whole new lexicon of pandemic-friendly phrases has taken root in my inbox: Stay healthy. Be well. Hope you’re hanging in there. Hope you’re staying safe and sane. In a recent update from a city councilperson’s office, the exhortation “please stay safe!” appeared just above the pasted-in press release.

Laura Bliss, a journalist in the Bay Area, has taken to opening her messages with “I hope this email finds you safe and healthy,” and then continuing on as normal from there.

Dara Resnik, a showrunner in Los Angeles, is now starting her emails with “hope you’re hanging in there,” and then closing with either “be safe” or “wash your hands.” The latter, she explained, was meant with some levity, but not entirely.

Her pandemic-related sign-offs, which Resnik was using for work and personal emails, also varied slightly based on the recipient. “Obviously, I’m not telling the president of Paramount TV to wash her hands.”

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Allegra Hobbs, a New York City-based writer, has spent “unhinged amounts of time” agonizing over how, exactly, to handle the email conundrum. Ignoring the circumstances we’ve all suddenly found ourselves in felt unnatural to her, as did skipping over the pleasantries altogether.

After much thought, she ended up going with some variation of “Hope you’re doing alright, all things considered.” She thought it seemed “more nice and professional than opening an email with ‘I know everything is terrible and you’re probably having a bad time, but I have an unrelated question.’”

That’s the crux of what most of us are struggling to convey, isn’t it?

Even if the now-shopworn phrases about health, safety and sanity feel increasingly rote, they are still an attempted shorthand for addressing a quite startling experience: You are a person and I am a person, and both of our lives have invariably been upended by this once-in-a-century pandemic. But also, the world keeps turning and this email still needs to be sent.

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For Jonathan Pacheco Bell, an urban planner in South L.A. who also serves as union delegate with the California Assn. of Professional Employees, the difference hasn’t been in the actual wording, but rather the breadth of what he now hopes to convey.

Like many organizers, Bell has long employed “in solidarity” as his sign-off in union-related emails — a valediction that’s relatively common in labor and progressive circles.

But these days, Bell is using the sign-off for all his emails, not just union-related correspondence. In his view, as a pandemic that has disproportionately affected L.A.’s working-class communities of color wears on, the solidarity imperative is more urgent and needed than ever.

“Before the pandemic, this sign-off told my fellow union members that we’re united as one,” he explained. “In using this sign-off now for all my emails, I’m conveying to every recipient that we must unite in solidarity to get through COVID-19.”

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“It’s a small act, but I’m trying to reach people by way of my email valediction.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday ordered a temporary “hard close” of all state and local beaches in Orange County despite the protests of elected officials, surfers and cooped-up people who just want to dip their toes in the sand after six weeks of stay-at-home orders. In doing so, he touched a nerve in a state where a day at the beach is akin to a birthright. Los Angeles Times

Reopening California by summer will be an arduous task requiring vast changes — and it won’t be quick. Despite people being desperate to get back to work, California officials still have a lot to do before they can meet the technological benchmarks that Newsom set to reopen the economy and lift restrictions on daily life. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

Coronavirus tests for all? L.A. County clarifies how residents can get tested. Los Angeles Times

Rafael Cardenas set out to capture L.A. in a photo a day. He ended up recording a pandemic. Los Angeles Times

“April 19, 2020 — La enorme distancia” by Rafael Cardenas.
(Rafael Cardenas)

The Writers Guild of America and the major Hollywood studios have agreed to start much-anticipated contract negotiations, which were at risk of being derailed by the coronavirus crisis. Los Angeles Times

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How an L.A. doctor got swept up in the swirl of the Trump White House as it confronts the pandemic. Dr. David Agus’ work is neither glitzy nor overtly controversial, but he’s found himself in the harsh glare of the spotlight in an era in which old malaria drugs and epidemiological curves have taken on a distinctly partisan bent. Stat News

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

The Trump administration’s program to aid hospitals and doctors on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis is leaving behind the nation’s Medicaid safety net — the pediatricians, mental health providers and hospitals that serve the poorest patients. Los Angeles Times

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This California county might defy the state and lift the stay-at-home order Friday: Modoc County, one of California’s least populated counties, will let all businesses, schools and churches open as long as people practice social distancing. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Robert Durst’s defense team has asked for a mistrial in the real estate scion’s Los Angeles murder case, arguing that delays in court proceedings caused by the coronavirus will make it impossible for him to receive a fair trial. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

There’s a rural-urban divide in California’s coronavirus infection rates. Data show vast differences in the depth of the crisis, notably between lightly hit rural and harder-hit urban spots. The rural north state in particular stands out with lower rates. Sacramento Bee

Despite recent storms, California is entering summer with a below-average snowpack. “March and April storms brought needed snow to the Sierras, with the snowpack reaching its peak on April 9. However, those gains were not nearly enough to offset a very dry January and February.” Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Getting coronavirus mortgage relief is confusing. Here’s how to make it easier. Los Angeles Times

“Crazy Bernie” has been fined again by the city of Fresno for keeping his furniture store open. “It’s just unfair pigeonholing people into these nonessential,” Bernie Siomiak of Crazy Bernie Furniture said. “Amazon shipped $1 million a day in furniture. (I received) a $1,000 fine for having an internet site of the worldwide web.” Fresno Bee

The publisher of La Cañada Outlook will revive the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press and Valley Sun. The 14 community news staff members who lost their jobs as part of the closures by the Los Angeles Times’ parent company will not move to the Outlook Newspapers group. The new owner said he would be reviewing staffing levels and coverage plans. Los Angeles Times

Workers at companies including Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods are reportedly staging a May Day strike to protest the lack of protections and benefits frontline workers have been provided in the face of a pandemic. Eater

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NOT EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE

San Diego’s fruit swap captures spirit of neighbors helping neighbors during the coronavirus crisis. The idea is simple: Neighbors with fruit trees or gardens can drop off produce at a lot in City Heights between 10 a.m. and noon every Wednesday, and neighbors in need can pick it up from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or until supplies last. Los Angeles Times

Sqirl’s famous scone recipe is now yours for the baking. The pastry chef at the temporarily shuttered Virgil Village cafe uses sourdough starter, crème fraîche and buttermilk to balance all the sweet fruit with the proper undertone of sourness. Los Angeles Times

Here are the top sports pro leagues you can watch live around the world: Taiwan has a full slate of games, including basketball, baseball and soccer. SF Gate

Chill out for free: L.A. County residents can get free premium access to the popular meditation/mindfulness app Headspace for the rest of the year. LAist

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A poem to start your Friday: “Proust’s Madeleine” by Kenneth Rexroth. Poetry Foundation

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 80. San Diego: sunny, 73. San Francisco: sunny, 64. San Jose: sunny, 75. Fresno: sunny, 84. Sacramento: sunny, 82. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Ruth Clark:

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My future husband, Ralph, and I graduated from Fairfax High School in 1941, the year war was declared. He joined the Navy, and whenever he got ‘leave,’ we often saw movies at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre or the Pantages. If he was ‘bucks up,’ we went dancing at the Hollywood Palladium to enjoy the big band music of Glenn Miller, Harry James, Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers, Jimmy or Tommy, whose lead singer was Frank Sinatra. To hear Black bands, we drove to the Casa Mañana in Culver City where we saw Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Cab Calloway. I’m in my 90s now, and if I hear a big band, I still tap my toes and even snap my fingers remembering the wonderful rhythms of the ‘40s.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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