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Column: In one moment, all can feel normal. The next, reality sets in

A young couple smiled and laughed as they tossed a frisbee late Sunday afternoon at Greenport’s Mitchell Park. A pair of fluffy samoyed dogs hung their heads out the rear windows of a passing car on Front Street, their tongues wagging as they enjoyed the soft breeze. Nearby, bicyclists soaked up the sun of a late winter afternoon that hinted of warmer days on the horizon.

In many ways, it felt like any other afternoon for a village emerging from hibernation at the dawn of another bustling summer season.

Soon, the park would be packed on Monday nights with dancing and music. The restaurants and bars would be filled with revelers. Bed-and-breakfasts would reach capacity and tourists would sip merlot and take in the North Fork’s gorgeous scenery.

The most stress-inducing issues for locals would be traffic, noise and those darn helicopters. 

The reminders that these are no ordinary times were also present, however. The carousel, normally in operation on Sunday, sat dormant. People stepping out of restaurants would wave to each other and blow a kiss, never coming too close, eschewing handshakes or hugs.

In one moment, everything feels normal. In the next, the reality of a growing crisis unlike anything we’ve seen here sinks in.

In Riverhead, cars maneuvered the traffic circle on Route 58 in front of Peconic Bay Medical Center, where, from the outside, it looked like business as usual. But an ominous feeling lingered: What would the next week bring? Tents set up outside? Exhausted doctors and nurses scrambling to treat the growing rush of patients?

We’ve endured other types of natural disasters before, like hurricanes and blizzards, which always seem to follow a similar script: A few days of preparation, hunkering down for a day or two, then emerging to assess the damage. Quickly, life returns to normal. We shovel snow, pick up broken tree limbs, patch holes in damaged roofs.

But what do we do now?

The hunkering-down period may last for weeks as COVID-19 continues to spread across the country. New York has the highest reported number of cases of any state (trailed closely by Washington as the numbers keep changing). And with testing so limited in the initial weeks after the virus reached the U.S., there was no way to isolate diagnosed patients on a large enough scale to contain the outbreak. 

So we sit inside, avoiding human contact, but when we look out the window, the world appears as if all is well; the sun shines and birds chirp.

We’re used to avoiding the threat of damaging winds, torrential rain and blinding snow. 

Now we face an invisible threat. 

Any person we encounter could be the one to unknowingly pass on COVID-19. Any surface we touch could be the blow that sends us into hospital isolation. Or it could mean nothing more than a cough and minor fever.

It’s all that uncertainty that makes these times mind-numbingly frustrating.

Our normal routine seems so tantalizingly within reach. And yet it’s so far away.

All we can do to be heroes now is stay inside, avoid large groups and wait. Those with the means can help local businesses by buying gift cards to be used at later dates. Also consider monetary donations to local food pantries that are trying to maintain operations.

Many others who are less fortunate, surviving on week-to-week paychecks, will be left sorting out which bills they can afford to pay.

There’s no blueprint for how this all plays out over the weeks and months ahead. The uncertainty for businesses here and across the country is distressing. We can hope that everyone survives the economic fallout and that by this summer the bars and restaurants are once again packed, those frustrating buses and limos filled with young people return to the wineries and there is high demand at local shops that sell luxury items.

The alternative is scary.

So we wait and hope, realizing that we face this threat together, as a town, a county, a state and nation.

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected]