Isolation, Day 60

Today marks the 60th full day since V and I went into self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the end of the ninth remote work week. As we have hidden mostly indoors (and thankfully in an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows), we have watched spring arrive in the Washington, DC area. With limited safe outdoor space close to our apartment, I have lamented “missing” one of my favorite seasons here. It isn’t yet hot and humid, and flowers, fresh breezes, and the occasional shower remind us to enjoy it while it lasts; the fetid swamp of DC summer will be here soon enough. Ordinarily, spring days here would be packed with people enjoying outdoor activities and spilling out onto sidewalks in packed brunch spots across the metro area.

But with the reality check of virus cases in northern Virginia continuing to rise and the Foreign Service summer transfer season postponed for a third time, I have tried to just accept the situation as it is and make the best of a lot of quiet time indoors.

This week, the governor of Virginia announced that areas in northern Virginia and Arlington County (where we live) would stay in reopening phase zero until 11:59 p.m. on May 28, still two weeks away. The executive order acknowledged that virus activity in northern Virginia is different than virus activity in other areas of the state, and established metrics for the more heavily-hit north to move toward phase one.

From the Virginia Department of Health, accessed May 15 ~

Requirements include increased testing, contact tracing, and availability of personal protective equipment, as well as sustained downward trends in diagnosed cases and hospitalizations over the next 14 days. The whole state is also still technically under a Stay at Home order through June 10, although some parts of the state entered what seems like a tentative phase one reopening today.

It will be interesting to watch how well Virginians do with social distancing in phases zero and one, if businesses in reopening areas see any economic recovery, and, eventually, if a new spike in cases leads to a phase regression.

The effects of the pandemic on the Foreign Service summer transfer season have been unprecedented. During the past week, the Department of State also froze Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves for the third time – through June 30. The first freeze happened in March, when March and April moves were postponed through April. A few weeks later, more guidance was issued postponing PCSs through May 31. Of course, we were supposed to hit the road on April 25 for the “Juárez or Bust Show.” We were aiming then for a May 1 arrival at the border, so that now makes us overdue at Post by about two weeks.

We currently don’t have any idea when we will be allowed to PCS, let alone when it will be safe enough to be packed out by movers and then road trip across seven states. I am especially concerned for my health given my immune compromised status. The situation is truly bizarre, but I can say that I have never been more grateful to have the opportunity to drive to a foreign assignment vs. fly. Many of my colleagues planning to fly across the world at some point this year to their next assignment where they will begin a two week quarantine followed by 2-4 years of service (all very far from the perceived safety of the United States) are understandably scared.

So far, the Department has not stipulated that officers late to their next assignments should do a kind of “virtual PCS.” In many cases, our predecessors are stuck at Post teleworking themselves and still covering the role (at least, those who did not leave on authorized departure over the past several weeks).

However, I have been fortunate to be invited by my new colleagues in Juárez and across U.S. Mission Mexico to participate in a number of Zoom meetings and calls to start getting up to speed on my portfolio of American Citizen Service (ACS) issues ahead of my eventual arrival. It has been a great pleasure to begin getting to know this hard-working team and see them in action. I am only sorry that I can’t add more value to the important work they are doing around passport, citizenship, death, arrest, and welfare and whereabouts cases.

But I am grateful for the opportunity to be included, and for some of the ways the virus has caused global shifts in thinking about work, telework, and what constitutes how we “show up.”

As my Spanish teacher used to say, “Es viernes, y el cuerpo lo sabe.” Translation: “It’s Friday, and the body knows it.”

Stay safe out there.

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Sarah W Gaer

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