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Strange Days, Pandemic Fever, and Coping with Covid 19

Posted 7/1/2020

By R. Bruce Wright, CPCU

I recently received an email in which the writer started out saying, “Strange days.” Strange days indeed are upon us.

Everyone has been affected by this global infection, this pandemic that swept, or is still sweeping, through virtually every community in the world. So, how to talk about safety in the utility business under these circumstances? 

As I sit and write this for RE-marks, I cannot avoid the elephant in the room, the Corona Virus. This past March I went to the NRECA Annual Meeting, where our insurance program has always had a presence since it began in 1975. I went to attend the EXPO, along with a large contingent of other folks, to man our booth, to meet and greet, to shake hands with the thousands of attendees who strolled through. So, for the first few days of March, we, along with many of you, all of us were in the midst of a hot spot that almost no one had heard about yet. (The good news was the none of our group fell ill. I hope the same was true for you.) For myself, I flew home on Thursday, March 5th, with no idea of what was coming. In fact, the next week I flew to Illinois on Monday, March 9th, visited a couple of utilities there, and flew home from Indianapolis on the 11th. By then, it was becoming clear that something was going on. The airplane was only half full or less, and as a frequent flyer I am well aware that normally, flights like that one are loaded to the gills, 100% full. Hmm. 

By the end of that week I had cancelled my remaining trips for the month and, as it has turned out, I haven’t visited anyone in person since. In fact, except for grocery shopping, I have hardly ever left my home. That has been a major change for me. 

For nearly all of us, the change came about by the third week of March. Change did not come all at once, though it came quite rapidly. As had happened already in other countries, there was no sudden event, no war and no invasion, other than a microscopic one that nobody could see. Change came quietly in most places, because the change was one of withdrawal, just a steady closing of doors — commercial, industrial, governmental and residential — doors that stayed shut the next morning and remained so until quite recently. Non-essential workers simply hunkered down at home, behind closed doors. 

But for you, our clients, that was not an option. Imagine what would have happened if the power went off in the midst of this disease. Remember the pictures you saw of crowded ERs and hospitals? Imagine those doctors and nurses working in the dark, with no machines at all. No oxygen pumps. No ventilators. No A/C. Homes and businesses across the nation with no lights, no TV, no radio, no information. Think of all the rest of the crucial businesses: food distribution, warehouses, grocery stores and all of their supply chains. Think of all of the rest of our infrastructure that is dependent on electric power to function. When it’s one consumer’s refrigerator, it’s a frustration; when it’s yours and mine and everyone else’s, it a disaster. It’s a lot like the saying we used to use to describe economic setbacks — when your neighbor loses a job it’s a recession, when you lose your job it’s a depression. And a lot of your neighbors may think this is a depression now.  

So, strange days indeed. Many of you have had to set up remote work systems for office staff, even create split shift rotations and “buddy systems” to protect the line workers and other critical technicians. Face-to-face meetings (Mask-to-mask?) were suspended, or held in shifts in mostly empty rooms to allow for social distancing. And many other adjustments were made, including home-based servicemen, direct dispatch to worksites, one person per vehicle, and too many more to mention. It has surely been a strange few months.

And of course, we all are anxious for a “return to normal,” or to the “new normal,” whatever that may be. Many of the States are in the process of loosening restrictions, in some cases even proposing to remove them entirely. And that brings us to the safety part of this article. 

Statistics show that in many of the States that have rapidly moved to open up, the incidence of Covid 19 infections has begun to climb again. It's true that the rural areas many of you are located in were among the least affected by the early wave of infections. That doesn’t mean that these areas are not at risk, since it now appears the worst hit communities are less likely to have a resurgence, while the least affected are seeing significant surges. So what to do? A key point is to not overly relax! As Yogi Berra is famously quoted as saying, “It ain’t over 'til it’s over!” So, until there is a treatment for this disease, there will be significant risks. Until there is a vaccine, everyone is a potential carrier/potential victim. As a result, it seems to me that a slow and thoughtful “loosening up” is the smart way to behave. Wear a mask in gatherings and crowds. Maintain 6’ of distance from anyone who is not a member of your household. Forego handshakes. Be judicious overall in your choices of where to go, what to do, and whom to do it with. There are clearly many more months, if not longer, ahead of us before travel, social contact, and all of the other things we were used to doing “before Covid” will again be the norm. 

On a personal note, I for one am not ready to get on an airplane with some hundreds of strangers yet, so I will be continuing to work remotely. If it has been a year or so since I last visited, you can expect a phone call from me to set up a teleconference. You will have plenty of warning, and we will pick a date and time that works for you. I hope to see you again, and sit across the desk from you, but it will not be for a while, unfortunately. Meanwhile, stay safe and stay healthy.