By Marissa Ryan/El Inde
I didn’t know when I left my University of Arizona classroom on March 4, 2020, that it would be the last time of my college career. When I eagerly exited the building looking forward to my last spring break, I didn’t realize that I would never be coming back to the place that had been a second home to me for the last four years of my life — school.
When I walked out those double doors on March 4, my plan was to enjoy my Florida vacation and get serious about applying for jobs, organizing graduation to-do’s and figuring out the next steps of my post-college life once I returned home.
The night before my flight to Florida, I walked through the aisles of Target trying to find hand sanitizer. I’d been reading about Covid-19 in China, and how it was slowly but surely migrating to the United States.
“Excuse me, where is the hand sanitizer?” I asked the Target team member. He looked at me with a long and tired face, as if to nonverbally scream at me, “Where have you been?!“
“I don’t think we have any left, but if we do, it would be over there,” he replied, pointing towards aisle A14.
There, I found empty shelves where cleaning chemicals and hand sanitizer products should be. I was lucky to find three 1.7 ounce bottles of hand sanitizer: two green apple, and one pink grapefruit.
I joked with my friends about not being able to find any N95 masks, almost mocking the ridiculousness of the idea of wearing a mask in public at all. Still, I boarded my flight with caution, keeping my hands away from my face and applying hand sanitizer profusely.
In Florida, the world carried on regularly. Cashiers sang as they charged my card at the Wawa corner store and our waitress sang us a tune as she seated us in the bustling nearby IHOP. My friend, Jillian, and I visited busy beaches, bustling restaurants and crowded clubs. The only thing that felt different was my increased use of hand sanitizer and regular hand washing. We didn’t know that in only one week the federal government would be telling us to stay six feet away from everyone we knew.
On Friday, March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency. My flight back to Tucson was postponed by a day, and Jillian and I ironically realized we were out of toilet paper. We headed to Wal-Mart to see if there was any in stock, knowing it would be rare.
As we went into the store, a man with long greasy hair, khaki shorts and a misaligned buttoned Hawaiian T-shirt murmured “good luck in there” as we entered. The first wave of pandemic panic hit me — what did he mean by good luck? I half expected to walk inside to the sight of Floridians fighting and screaming over few items on empty shelves.
That would not be the case. I did find the toilet paper aisles empty, but there was plenty of bread, pasta, eggs, meat and milk. Everything that I would think a person would stock up on for an looming global crisis was still on the shelves.
“It’s kind of like hurricane season,” said our cashier as she scanned our essential margarita mix. “I just don’t understand why everyone went for the toilet paper.”
After I got back to Tucson the following day, I headed to the grocery store to stock my empty refrigerator. The reality of the situation hit me much differently in an Arizona grocery store than it had in Florida — here, the stores were empty. Whereas life carried on in Florida, life seemed to be coming to a screeching halt in Tucson. People seemed more anxious and afraid.
I could not find a single box of pasta, loaf of bread, carton of eggs or package of meat on the shelves.
An empty grocery store is something a person never anticipates seeing in their lifetime. I never even considered it a possibility. But in that moment, I could understand why so many people were panic buying — what if this was the last opportunity we had to buy food?
Standing among the empty shelves and panicked people, I quickly realized what an unprecedented time I was living through, and what extraordinary changes were to come.
The following day, March 14, I went back to work for the first time after spring break. For the last four years, I have worked full-time while also going to school full-time, which has left me with very few days off and very little alone time. Little did I know that soon I would have more alone time than I could handle.
I was at work for 45 minutes before my store manager announced over the intercom that everybody was to come to a store meeting.
I knew that we were going to close. We’d made less than half of our projected sales goals for the last week and had been watching retailers around us close day after day.
As we all gathered, I bantered with my coworkers. “Well, at least I was able to hit every green light on the way to work today!” I said. They chuckled nervously.
I was the last one to leave my building. As I also hit every green light on the way home, it occurred to me just how much time I was about to have on my hand. Except now, I wasn’t sure I wanted it anymore.