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Opinion: What was ‘normal’ in March 2020 seems dangerous and subversive now

Among runners, a man carries on his back a sign that reads "COVID-19 sucks...."
Runners participate in the Los Angeles Marathon on March 8, 2020, days before large gatherings would start to be canceled and eventually banned because of COVID-19.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Two weeks ago, with the looming one-year anniversary of COVID-19 upending life in California, we asked readers to share their memories of the early days of this pandemic and reflect on life in this altered reality. Nearly 100 of you sent us responses; among them were recitations of specific memories from the last year, including recollections from late February and early March 2020, the period when coronavirus insidiously chipped away at “normal” life and precipitated the restrictions with which we live today. Published here are letters looking back at that period.

There were also plenty of letters from readers who spent the last year grieving or living with other complications exacerbated by the pandemic. Two letters in particular stuck with me: One was from a reader whose wife of 40 years died from non-COVID-19 complications last March and had to spend the year grieving alone, and another was from someone whose spouse was told his cancer treatment was failing just as vaccines were becoming available and the pandemic appeared to be winding down. Those letters, and others that share heart-rending experiences from the last year, will be published in the coming days.

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To the editor: On Thursday evening, March 12, 2020, I attended two choir rehearsals back to back. The first choir had members who were a mix of ages stuffed into the pews. The second choir was an older group (80s) stuffed into an even smaller space.

We all sang our hearts out. I was in my happy place.

The next day I went to teach physical education at an elementary school in my neighborhood. There too I was in my happy place. After class, I was informed we were closing for two weeks.

The next morning I drove to my beloved ballet class in Santa Barbara, my happiest place, and it was closed. I cried. There was to be no singing, dancing, hugging, socializing, traveling — it seemed impossible, yet here we are.

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I just got my first vaccine because I am a teacher. I see the light, but some things will never be the same.

Holly Irwin Bassuk, Ojai

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To the editor: Everything changed for me on March 13, 2020. I was working for a senior meal delivery service, and going door-to-door was getting very precarious. There was no testing for the virus, no masking requirement, no social distancing protocols, and the virus was spreading rapidly.

One of my longtime clients passed away rather suddenly, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and then Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-home orders. My wife was in the middle of chemotherapy, compromising her immune system, and I had no choice but to take a leave.

I initially requested two weeks off, hoping everything would return to normal sooner rather than later.

Things only got worse. Most public places closed, my favorite mountain trails were closed, and Instacart was our only physical contact with the outside world.

Bruce Brizzard, Sherman Oaks

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To the editor: My family was all set to celebrate my 95th birthday. We had a lovely party scheduled for March 14, 2020, at a restaurant in Granada Hills for about 50 people.

But as we became aware of the spread of COVID-19 and grew concerned over a possible lockdown, guests began backing off. We decided for everyone’s protection to cancel the whole party.

As it turned out, a 21-year-old granddaughter of mine was infected with the virus, but she did not know it at the time. Testing was scarce then, so after she got sick she was tested for other diseases, and it was decided her illness had to be COVID-19.

If we had gone ahead with the party, how many others of us could have been infected? She had a mild case and fought it off at home.

As for me personally, I have been blessed, because I enjoy being at home, so this has not been a hardship for me. And there is always Zoom.

Emily Ruffner, Granada Hills

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To the editor: On Sunday, March 8, 2020, I along with seven of my Chilean women friends who escaped Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship celebrated International Women’s Day at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. We did not know it would be the last time we would see each other physically in almost a year.

This wasn’t much different from the time each one of us was forced out of our country of birth, when we did not know if we would ever see our families again.

Through our unwavering friendship, we work hard at overcoming the current hardships, just as we did in the past when our loved ones were dying or being tortured in Chile. We cried together over Zoom about being unable to see our children and grandchildren and the impossibility of traveling to Chile to be close to our elderly parents and other family.

We also laughed about our newly discovered abilities to bake, cook, garden and knit. We kept our dreams alive and our minds busy.

Our plans changed and travels were canceled because of the pandemic, but the virus did not stop us from marching in support of Black Lives Matter. We also raised money to support homeless people in Chile and for other causes that reflect our unwavering belief in human dignity at home and abroad.

Isabel Rojas-Williams, Alhambra

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To the editor: In late February 2020, life still seemed mostly normal. My fiancée had just sat for the California bar exam (she passed) and we headed for a long weekend in Cabo San Lucas to shake it off.

Somewhere on the return trip between San Diego International Airport and the train to Irvine, we were unknowingly sickened. I was told I had an “unidentified respiratory infection” that was suspected COVID-19, although since I’m not a celebrity no test was available to confirm this.

We were both very ill and bedridden (in separate rooms) by the end of the first week of March. I distinctly remember lying in bed fatigued and foggy with an ebbing fever on March 19, when I read on the L.A. Times mobile app that Newsom had instituted a statewide stay-home order. On TV, the news showed images of military personnel closing down entire regions of Italy.

When we were finally well enough to venture outside, we emerged wearing masks and surgical gloves onto vacant roads and into darkened stores with utterly empty shelves. It felt a bit like the pilot episode of “The Walking Dead.” That was the moment it hit us that life had changed.

We are now fairly certain that 2020 was the longest decade of our lives.

Derrick B. Gruner, Irvine


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