Coronavirus and the Struggle to Live Virtually

From streaming concerts to breaking quarantines, we're reckoning with our inability to encounter people in the real world.

By Stefan Milne March 25, 2020

FIRST, A MISTAKE. On March 12—the day after governor Jay Inslee announced the earliest ban on public gatherings to abate the spread of coronavirus—the Seattle Symphony posted its first free online video broadcast, Gustave Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Earlier that day, I’d read a press release poorly and understood that the performance would be streamed live. So when I got to my computer a little late and found the orchestra in the first movement, I thought I was watching in real time.

Each twinge on a musician’s face, each emotive flop of conductor Thomas Dausgaard’s hair, I cathected with collective meaning: This civic institution was playing us through the first days of crisis, all of them together on stage in generous harmony, a metaphor for how the city would rally. I could see an audience in the front rows in Benaroya Hall, but assumed they were less than 250 and focused on the music.

The fourth movement came on like a storm, a finale Mahler once called “a sudden outburst of despair from a deeply wounded heart.” The sun was setting outside my window, another metaphor—the audience, each in our own homes, moving into the dark days ahead together. Clapping emojis waterfalled in the comments section. Then a crush of applause from Benaroya’s audience broke my delusion: The hall was packed. This performance was filmed in September 2019.

Between that Thursday and a Saturday rebroadcast, the recording got 130,000 views. Since then, similar experiences have proliferated. Sitting in front of streams at my home desk, I’ve seen spring blush across the University of Washington’s cherry trees, seen the Berlin Philharmonic play Luciano Berio and Béla Bartók to an empty hall, seen musicians—Tomo NakayamaBen GibbardEvan Flory-BarnesJulia Francis—perform in front of webcams alone, like teenagers noodling through covers on YouTube.

Because of my symphony mix-up, I’ve been extra aware of what I impose. Normally, we carry our baggage to art and shape it (a sad song sounds different when you’re happy). And the physical experience always seeps in—the collectiveness of a concert, the isolated repose of a book. But in this outpouring of virtual performances, the context is the most salient aspect, the piece’s defining metaphor: We’re alone together. Video’s very thinness—it never compares to live shows—becomes an emotional accent, a sense of longing for the real thing.

That longing, and music as a rejoinder, is meaningful. As is the sense of virtue: We’re not gathering, we’re staying home. And many of the streams raise money for artists in need or other causes (Ben Gibbard’s first was for But as the novelty fades, so for me does the power. Soon, I'm just watching clips online. 

That tension between the real and virtual worlds distills in the arts, but it’s playing out everywhere in the city.


VIRTUAL ENTERED ENGLISH in the fourteenth century, first meaning things like “inherently powerful” and “morally virtuous.” (How terribly strange that virus shares a Latin root, vir, meaning “man” or “hero.”) Not until 1959 did virtual twist toward computer simulations.

Now, in Seattle, the old moral definition and the sense of simulation interact. Every movement in this city—staying in, going out, washing hands, touching your face, buying local, keeping six feet from other bodies at the park, choosing phone calls in lieu of visits—comes with palpable morality, in the sturdiest sense: We are trying to keep people alive.

But as this morality grows more present, our interactions with those we were trying to protect become less so. There are many reasons why people have and continue to ignore self-quarantine. The blithe privilege of the well and the young: “It will not hurt me.” (It might.) The lack of clear directives, especially from the federal government. The rampant dissemination of poor information. Disdain for authority or the “liberal media.” Whatever the hell was going on in Florida

But all this rests on the abstraction, the virtualization, of the pandemic. A nurse I know told me a worker from Life Care Center showed up at her clinic with a cough. It was then, my friend said, that she "put a face to it." That's the most basic thing—the fact of a body in the world—but impossible to ignore.

I still don’t know anyone very personally with confirmed COVID-19. But the realities of layoffs ripping through the city are intensely present. They’ve devastated the three Seattle industries I’ve been a part of. For five years, I wrote fiction and worked in restaurants, and now I cover the arts and sometimes food.

Even after Inslee began to ban public gatherings, Seattleites went out and saw the empty restaurants and wanted to offer support. It was irresponsible, even dangerous, but I get it. Briefly, I did the same.


ANOTHER MISTAKE: I broke my self-quarantine on March 15. The curve-flattening goal was by then clear and I’d spent the last days in my house. But I went downtown to grab things from our empty offices—books, notes—preparing to work from home indefinitely. Then I stopped by the Dahlia Lounge, a few blocks away, on its last night of service. 

Tom Douglas’s decision to close it, temporarily, after 30 years in business, along with 11 more of his restaurants, felt catastrophic. It’s one of the city’s true institutions. The star chef’s flagship. The place was in Sleepless in Seattle. And for three-and-a-half years, I washed dishes, bussed tables, cooked there. 

I meant to stop in only to say hello, maybe have a drink. But the place was empty and the vibe strange, wan—like blood had been taken. I ended up staying for dinner at the bar, rationalizing with the empty seats on both sides of me. Bland, looping jazz played. Dry goods were piled in the private dining room. More staff, past and present, arrived. So did Tom, who chatted up tables.

I checked in with old coworkers. A manager said he had planned to leave restaurants for years but had been too comfortable. He figured the place wouldn’t return from the closure, but he was most worried about Tom and his wife Jackie. One server, who’d been there 26 years, joked around—she was filling a growler at the taps. Then her voice cracked as she said she had some savings but “no other skills.” A cook, who lives with his parents, was eerily cheerful: “I’m just going to collect unemployment for a while.” A sous chef said she’d been crying and drinking a can of wine between inventory sheets. She was one of the few to keep a job, making sandwiches for the bakery. The chef would be working the counter. I told him I’d worried about being out, potentially spreading infection, and he nodded as though he’d worried about the same. He thanked me for stopping by. 

Leaving, I saw the news: Inslee was, aside from delivery and takeout, closing all the city’s restaurants.


I WOKE UP THE NEXT DAY under a fog of guilt. I recalled and examined each interaction (how close did we stand?), each utensil I’d touched, each exhale. I imagined my body as a moving speck in the Washington Post’s simulations. I saw beneath the realm of the visible as germs spread further and further, from me to stranger, to stranger, to stranger, to my brother working as a cashier in Maple Valley, to my mom (healthy, but over 60), to all the people I know who are higher risk, whether due to age or other conditions, to all those I don't know. I understood all this before, but it is easy to operate under the delusion that what feels most meaningful to you, literally being there for people, is also most meaningful at large. 

We’re still coming to terms with the awful morality of this thing even as our experience of others flattens into screens: donations to and from strangers through GoFundMe, streams of syllables, pulsations of light, voices crackling through phone speakers, faces pixilated in webcams where our eyes never quite make contact. I’ve been stepping outside only for groceries and to go running in the sun that's hit the city like a paradox, bright and cool. As I pass people on the sidewalks, when I can’t swerve far enough, I hold my breath.

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