Exploring Washington D.C. on the eve of COVID-19

Back at the beginning of March, my wife and I took the Amtrak down to D.C. – and what would be one of the last regular Acela trains back up to Newark, just before the Corona virus started moving into the mainstream. It was a strange experience because most people weren’t reacting to it yet, though there was a sense of some danger in the air. The following week my office closed down and my wife’s followed the week after. It remains the last real time we left the house in over two months.

We worried about heading down beforehand, but the virus hadn’t yet hit the US in a noticeable way. The first cases were just beginning to get reported and none had occurred in NJ or D.C. We worried the population of the city and the number of tourists might increase the risks with visiting, but with limited information about the disease at that time, we decided to still head down. We didn’t realize how quickly things would change over the weekend.

Even with the virus looming down, we had a nice weekend trip and got to experience parts of the city we hadn’t before. After taking the kids last year and visiting the zoo, the Air and Space Museum, and the National Air Show, we focused on some other areas this time. Looking back now in the midst of self isolation and social distancing, it’s quaint how different it was.

During this last weekend out and about, no one wore masks or knew to stay at least six feet apart. I picked up coffee from a nearby Stackbucks three times. They were still doing dinning in, didn’t have masks or gloves, and there was no sanitizer to be found. All the restaurants were still open, and we stayed in the beautiful historic Omni hotel, which has since shut down temporarily. Sitting outside at the hotel bar’s firepit was one of the best parts of our trip, and there was no semblance of distancing or separation.

One of the best discoveries I made during this trip was a huge wooded trail system between Foundry Branch Valley Park along the Potomac and Glover Archibald Park all right through an otherwise densely populated part of town right near the Naval Observatory and National Cathedral. While I was surprised that it was pretty sparsely populated, I did run past a few hikers and runners and at that time we didn’t know to stay distant on the paths. After almost a month of parks and trails being closed here in NJ, it is strange to look back at this completely unrestricted run in a populated part of a major city now.

Perhaps the most surreal part of our trip looking back now was our tour of the Capital Building. We walked around the building itself in a group of about 30, with numerous other groups circulating around us. We didn’t get to go into a session of Congress, but we did traverse hallways that are used by members and all the same public spaces. At one point at least 100 people across several tour groups were all crammed into the rotunda room together. This seems incomprehensible now when even groups of 10 are forbidden. There were even numerous groups of foreign dignitaries and groups on their own tours in the same places. I can’t imagine these tours coming back the same way.

On our way back, the impact of the virus started to become more obvious. Several trains back were canceled due to low demand, and the train we were on had additional precautions like hand sanitizer in each car. Though they did not enforce any kind of social distancing with the seats, the train was empty enough that we ended up far apart from any others anyway. There were no real changes in the train station either in D.C. or Newark at that time, but two weeks later they began.

We didn’t have a strong feeling of just how major the virus and the impact would be at the time, but as we departed D.C., we felt a bit like we were fleeing a rapidly devolving situation and that we might be saying goodbye to tourism and travel for at least some time. However, I don’t think we had any idea that a few days later I’d be working from home indefinitely, that a few weeks later both my wife’s company and our daycare would follow suite, and that months later we’d still be at home with no real end in sight. It was nice to get out of the house and away one last time before indefinite lock down, but by the end of the weekend we were definitely ready to get back home and into safety as things evolved.

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