Diary of a lockdown: What it feels like in 17 cities during the pandemic

March 21, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

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The world has reported more than 265,000 cases of the coronavirus, and governments and companies are urging—and sometimes mandating—that people work from home, avoid gathering spaces like restaurants and bars, and stick to essential activities only.

This has radically changed everyday life for people globally. Fortune staffers around the world share snapshots of what social distancing and lockdowns feel like in 16 cities.

March 14, 2020

Chicago

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Patrons drink at Nick’s Beer Garden in Chicago to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day despite the efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Joshua Lott—Reuters

St. Patrick’s Day is always a major holiday in Chicago (we usually dye the river green!). This year, many of the usual parties and events were canceled, but a lot of people still seemed to end up going to bars. My Instagram feed was basically people at bars celebrating or people posting about how you should absolutely not be at bars right now. Two separate worlds/realities. —John Buysse, audience engagement editor

March 15, 2020

Madrid

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Lockdown day five in Spain. Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid, on March 19, 2020, at 1:30 p.m. The Castellana is Madrid’s main north/south artery.
Courtesy of Ian Mount

A year ago, our building’s doorman, Martín, and his family adopted a rambunctious but shy chocolate Lab puppy they named Draco. Today, on the first day of the lockdown, Draco, like every dog in Madrid, became a star when dog walking was listed as one of the few ways to be on the street without receiving a fine. Dog memes flood WhatsApp—exhausted puppies with thought balloons saying, “But I’ve been out 38 times today!” and “The whole building has taken me for a walk. Who the hell is this Covid?”

In my coworking space’s group, we brainstorm businesses: How about combining a bicycle food-delivery service with a dog-rental offering? Twenty euros for two hours with a Yorkie. It’s funny, but I know we’re laughing to avoid facing an invisible assassin that’s already taking casualties: eight deaths at the Hospital Princesa five blocks away, where in simpler days I visited my dermatologist; the normalcy I’d taken for granted—the right to walk down the street, window-shop, share a caña with friends; and the basic ideas of freedom, of contact, of community. When I see Martín later, he tells me that he used to do all the dog walking, but since the lockdown his two daughters were trying to ease him out of the job: “Now the girls fight over who gets to take him.” Today was, at least in theory, my birthday. Next year, I think I’d like a dog. —Ian Mount, contributing editor

March 16, 2020

Paris

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Paris lockdown: a lone shopper with disposable gloves and homemade mask.
Courtesy of Vivienne Walt

We had a typical drinks party in Paris on Monday night with good Bordeaux and interesting people. Only one twist: The nine guests were scattered in different streets around the city, logging into the digital drinks party with a glass in hand, right after Emmanuel Macron had finished telling France in his presidential address, “We are at war.” In fact, we felt we had something to celebrate—a 15-day lockdown. That was a whole lot better than the rumors that had swirled all day of a 45-day lockdown with a 6 p.m. curfew. Two weeks suddenly felt minor. Digital drinks parties are a fast-growing phenomenon in the time of the coronavirus, so here are a few tips: Dress up, from the waist up—it’s a party! And iron out the tech kinks, which for us involved muting mics that weren’t being used. “This is the first epidemic with social media,” one of us said. “I can even record it.” Amid the dismal news—and the claustrophobia—there’s a sense of witnessing history too. —Vivienne Walt, Europe correspondent

March 17, 2020

Los Angeles

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Ocean Avenue (at Arizona Ave, looking northbound), one of downtown Santa Monica’s main thoroughfares. Lined with hotels, restaurants, and the Santa Monica Pier—and featuring an unbroken vista that looks out over the Pacific Ocean—it’s usually a favorite destination for tourists. Today, with the pier and retailers closed over COVID-19 concerns, it’s nearly silent.
Courtesy of Andrew Nusca

Tuesday; evening rush hour in L.A. Having finished my work for the day, I shift the car into “drive” and slowly wind my way to the main road. At this time of day, it’s certain chaos: cars stacked up trying to get on the freeway, vehicles strewn across intersections in a desperate attempt to beat the light, an endless repeating pattern of scarlet brake lights. But there’s none of that. The asphalt is empty. The intersections are clear. The freeways are…free. Is this what Los Angeles is actually supposed to be like?

I drive—with alarming ease—to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade in search of a hot meal. The typically busy thoroughfare has been hushed. The buskers have been banished; the perambulators have perished. A lone bicyclist winds aimlessly around colorful outdoor furniture installed by the local business improvement district. As the sun sinks into the Pacific Ocean three blocks away, a customer asks the man making his burrito if it’s been consistently this quiet. He looks up and counts the four people inside the restaurant, all waiting to take their food back to their homes by law. “Yeah,” he says, as the clock near him advances to 6:45 p.m. “This is the biggest rush we’ve had all day.” —Andrew Nusca, digital editor

Boston/Cambridge

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A completely empty bulletin board that was once covered in activities for Harvard University students in Cambridge.
Courtesy of Aaron Pressman

Taking my son to a weekly appointment in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood every Tuesday afternoon is typically a stressful affair, dodging traffic and searching for an elusive parking space. This week, with Bostonians urged to stay home, most stores were closed, pedestrians were few and far between, and parking was ample. As I walked around the Newbury Street shopping district, almost everything was closed, from the tony art galleries and restaurants to major retailers like Nike and Apple. The nearby Back Bay train station was also a ghost town, with more than half of Amtrak’s schedule canceled. A lone masked worker walked out of the MBTA’s Orange Line subway.

Later I drove by Harvard University, which dismissed all students and asked them to move out of their dorms by March 15. The vast Widener Library was locked up tight. A popular bulletin board usually crammed with fliers and announcements for upcoming events was completely blank. Harvard Square’s bookshops and eateries were mostly closed, too, and no one was playing chess at the outdoor boards nearby. Famous Harvard Yard was empty except for a few tourists from China wearing face masks and a couple of hungry squirrels. —Aaron Pressman, senior writer

March 18, 2020

London

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The baking section inside a Waitrose supermarket near Jeremy Kahn’s house in north London. There is a shortage of flour and eggs throughout the country as demand has soared.
Courtesy of Jeremy Kahn

I’m in a hurry to drop my kids off. Schools have remained open in the U.K., which has been slower to impose stringent social distancing measures than elsewhere. (Later, the Prime Minister announces all schools will shut from Monday.) After depositing them at the school gate, I need to buy bread. I’d visited two stores yesterday, but they were sold out. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything available. Whole aisles had been stripped bare by panicked stockpiling. Normally we shop online, but the grocers’ websites have been inundated, and no delivery slots are available, even searching weeks ahead. Some have stopped taking online orders entirely. I felt queasy looking around the empty shelves. That’s why today, I want to get to the store quickly.

It’s crowded, and the shelves are less empty than before. Some things—eggs, flour, pasta, rice, and toilet paper—are still unavailable. The store has brought in additional staff to restock. Many seem lost. An employee is apologizing to a customer for being unable to help her find an item. She doesn’t normally work here, she explains. She’s one of the executives from the supermarket’s head office, but they’ve all been pressed into service to keep the shelves full. The customer shakes her head and says how crazy it all is. I nod in agreement. — Jeremy Kahn, senior writer

New York

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A peaceful view of New York City at 6:30 a.m. while on a run.
Courtesy of Phil Wahba

Life in New York City would be unbearable for me were it not for the proximity of Central Park, the city’s so-called Green Lung. The 843-acre park offers not only trees, flowers, and fresh air, but sanctuary too, especially during major crises. Wanting to reconcile the need to go run with the imperative for social distancing, I head from my Upper West Side apartment to the park at 6:00 a.m., when crowds are still thin, entering at West 90th street.

After the first two-mile interval of my speed workout (my coach can see remotely if I am slacking off!) in pitch darkness, I take a break on the western edge of the reservoir to watch the sky get orange and pink as the sun rises up from behind Upper East Side apartment buildings. To the south, the dawn’s early light gives the Midtown Manhattan skyline a purple hue and makes America’s biggest, messiest, noisiest city look peaceful. All the while, my fellow runners on the reservoir and the park’s six-mile inner loop seeking the same solace and outlet start to increase in numbers as day breaks. After the next two-mile interval, I jogged out of the park, down Seventh Avenue, to Times Square. I see the normally crowded, bustling, and noisy “Crossroads of the World” has become a serene plaza in the time of the coronavirus outbreak, a few cars and pedestrians here and there but no honking. Concluding my workout, I do my final interval along the Hudson River to get home, enjoying a semblance of normalcy, if only a brief one, before resuming my seclusion from the city. —Phil Wahba, senior writer

Portland, Ore.

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Cartopia food cart pod on Hawthorne Street in Portland, Ore., on March 18, around 7:30 p.m. One of the pioneering lots that make up Portland’s food cart scene, the outdoor dining hub is where many locals go for items from wood-fired pizza to poutine. This particular pod is popular with younger customers because of its late-night hours.
Courtesy of John Patrick Pullen

It’s the year’s first sunny day above 60 degrees, which in most places would feel like a holiday. In Portland it’s usually an outdoor orgy of runners and bicyclists clogging the roads and a sea of people sunbathing in parks. Today, though, it’s sparse. It’s what I imagine Portland was like 30 years ago, before it became popular and cool, a time old hipsters regard as the city’s golden years.

That era sprouted the city’s unparalleled food cart scene. I drive over to Cartopia, perhaps the city’s oldest cart pod, and find nearly all eight of the mini-restaurants staffed, despite the desolation. But there’s only around six customers, and they’re all waiting for takeout, while keeping each other at a respectful distance.

“Hey! The coronavirus didn’t kill you!” jokes the lone staffer at Chicken and Guns, as a friend approaches. “It just killed the business,” he adds under his breath.

These eight carts typically staff around 80 people, they tell me. Yesterday, Chicken and Guns’ manager laid himself off, because he needed to stay home with his kid. A couple more weeks of days like this, they say, and their food carts will close—perhaps for good.

That’s already the scene at Powell’s, the legendary indie book shop that temporarily closed its doors this week. “When we do open our stores again,” wrote president Emily Powell, “we expect the landscape of Oregon…will have changed dramatically.”

Portland’s already has. Coronavirus has barely taken hold here, but it’s killed the Portlandia joke that this is where young people go to retire. Retiring sounds fun, sure…until you realize what comes next. —John Patrick Pullen, tech editor

Washington, D.C.

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Many monuments and museums in Washington, D.C., like the Washington Monument, seen here, are closed.
Courtesy of Karen Yuan

It’s cherry blossom season in D.C., and the air is warm and inviting and streaming with petals. This time last year, the tree-lined National Mall was teeming with people taking photos. Now the branches are pink and full while the streets are empty, like tables set for a feast no one’s going to. I’m walking past a closed Washington Monument, then a closed National Museum of African American History and Culture, then a closed Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, then a closed National Art Gallery, and it feels like the entire capital has shut down. The only thing that has stayed open is a paraphernalia stall advertising USA-emblazoned T-shirts, eagle-shaped magnets, and MAGA hats, its vendor sitting out front, staring bleakly at the deserted plaza in front of her. —Karen Yuan, newsletters editor

Glen Ridge, N.J.

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A quiet residential street in Glen Ridge, N.J.
Courtesy of Emma Hinchliffe

Twelve miles west of Manhattan, the streets of Glen Ridge are empty. It’s not quite as eerie as a desolate Times Square, but it feels more like a slow summer day than the middle of March: no kids walking to school and barely any New York commuters heading for the usually bustling NJ Transit train station. I usually live in Chinatown, in New York City, but came home to my mom’s house to ride out the social isolation order. She’s a real estate agent, and her work—open houses, showing houses to clients—has slowed to a crawl. One bit of good news: The neighbors are planning a socially distanced curbside happy hour. —Emma Hinchliffe, associate editor

March 19, 2020

Berlin

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Viktoria-Luise-Platz in Berlin on Tuesday, showing how people aren’t taking social distancing very seriously yet.
Courtesy of David Meyer

Our local Edeka grocery store has finally begun restricting the number of people who can shop there at one time. Until now, the queues were packed as tight as “usual”—a word that no longer feels very defined. The store had fresh milk today; we don’t need to tuck into our reserves of long-life milk just yet. I bumped into our elderly neighbor on the way there. We have repeatedly told him and his wife that they need to stay indoors, and we can get them anything they need, but they keep going out. I don’t blame them—we all need to stay sane—but I do worry about them.

Our day care facility, Berlin’s Kitas, closed on Tuesday, so my wife and I are both working full-time at home with a toddler who, being sick, is giving us very broken nights. A mere two-and-a-half days in, it feels incredibly difficult—all we do is work, care for her, and sleep when we can. Rinse and repeat. Being prone to journalistic shorthand, I have felt the temptation to call this situation hellish. But I know there is real hell in this crisis, and we have fortunately managed not to encounter it yet. —David Meyer, senior writer

Vail, Colo.

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No lift-ticket sales in Vail, Colo.
Courtesy of Jeff John Roberts

Three inches of fresh snow have just fallen in Vail when I arrive on a Thursday morning in mid-March. The new snow means a layer of “champagne powder” is dusting the slopes of this Colorado resort town—offering up the perfect winter experience that draws skiers and snowboarders to Vail from around the globe.

But even as more snow comes down, there is only eerie silence. No one is on the slopes, and the adjoining village is deserted. Vail’s Gondola One, which ordinarily whisks 10 skiers up the mountain in an enclosed bubble with heated seats and Wi-Fi, sits forlorn. Nearby chairlifts are as still as they are in midsummer.

Less than a week before, the place was teeming with the first wave of spring break arrivals and ticket booths were busy, even with one-day lift passes priced at $219. The village bustled with swanky restaurants and après-ski options, alongside pricey jewelry stores and galleries. Then came the order from Colorado’s governor, responding to reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s famous ski towns, to shut it down. Shut it all down. Now, Vail is utterly empty, as are famous nearby destinations like Breckenridge and Aspen. Meanwhile, the snow piles up. —Jeff John Roberts, senior writer

Rome

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An undertaker wearing a face mask and coveralls unloads a coffin out of a hearse on March 16, 2020, at the Monumental cemetery of Bergamo, Italy.
Piero Cruciatti—AFP via Getty Images

Week one inside the first nationwide lockdown by a democracy since World War II: monotony. Week two: dead bodies.

We can’t believe the nightly TV reports coming in from Bergamo, a prosperous northern city less than an hour from Milan. The city, famous for banking, steel, and San Pellegrino mineral water, was late to enforce lockdown measures. Now the infection rate has since spiraled, and the overflow of sick people are being treated in triage tents in hospital parking lots. The dead are so numerous the city has called in the army to remove them.

My sister-in-law works in the mayor’s office for a large city in central Italy, hundreds of miles from Bergamo. She’s been pressed into duty to help manage the city’s COVID-19 response. It’s long hours on the phone looking for Protezione Civile volunteers—the brave men and women restoring order in a community after an earthquake or landslide—to bring food and medical supplies to the homes of the city’s swelling numbers of stranded elderly. In week two of the lockdown, this city where she works began fielding a different kind of call: Can you help us with the dead?

The morgues and crematories in Bergamo and in Ancona, another coronavirus hotspot on the Adriatic coast, are overwhelmed. They’ve begun shipping the dead to other regions to handle the autopsies and cremations. “The bodies arrive here alone,” she told me. “No family.”

An expert in modern art, my sister-in-law used to organize cultural events for the city. Italy’s economy has been hurting for years, but Italian communities always seem to find just enough money to put on a concert or an art exhibit or a sagra festival of food and wine that never fails to impress. That was her job, her passion. All public gatherings have been called off since the lockdown went into effect. “This is completely extraordinary,” she started to tell me. The phone rang. It was the mayor. Something urgent. She had to get back to work. —Bernhard Warner, senior writer and editor

Oakland

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Oakland’s Fox Theater lies dormant without lights on.
Courtesy of Jonathan Vanian

The normally busy streets of downtown Oakland are now bare. There’s hardly any life moving around in this typically bustling part of the East Bay, and it’s eerie. Although not the economic powerhouse of San Francisco’s financial center, Oakland’s downtown has spruced up in recent years, becoming the little commercial district that could. But you wouldn’t be able to tell now.

People aren’t spilling out from the BART station during prime commute time. Workers aren’t grabbing lunches from nearby delis or taco shops. Hipsters aren’t congregating at popular cafés. It’s as if everyone is hunkering down inside, trying to avoid the plague—it fact, that’s exactly what it is.

The iconic Fox Theater is closed with a short, optimistic note: “Back Soon!” Oakland’s Chinatown is relatively sparse—the few people out are store clerks in face masks, hoping to make a sale. Even nearby Lake Merritt is barren, with just a few lonely joggers on a grim day.

There’s a strange sense of serenity that comes from walking through a nearly abandoned downtown. It’s oddly calming being alone with one’s thoughts in the middle of a city—usually hikes in the forest provide that occasionally nice refuge from other people. But man, do I miss seeing everyone. —Jonathan Vanian, writer

St. Louis

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St. Louis’s City Museum, whose exhibits consist largely of repurposed architectural and industrial objects, is closed through March 31.
Courtesy of Ellen McGirt

I live in the kind of St. Louis suburb where social distancing—big lawns, empty sidewalks—is part of the draw. And yet, even here, the stress is starting to build. While the Nextdoor app is filled with offers to help neighbors in need, my favorite local grocery chain, Dierbergs, has begun limiting the amounts you can buy of certain food. You can finally get all the romaine you want, but you’ll have to slow down on the bread and eggs. (Also, there seems to be a run on chicken and shrimp, and the butcher has been redeployed.)

The biggest casualty so far are reusable grocery bags. They are banned from today on for the foreseeable future. “It’s for everyone’s safety,” said the glove-wearing checkout clerk. “We’re totally hopeful here but want to be safe.”

It’s spring break for the majority of St. Louis schools this week, so empty school parking lots are the norm. While it still feels normal to not be shuttling my 15-year-old to and from school, both the St. Louis Zoo and the world-famous City Museum are closed because of the coronavirus. (Along with all the other amazing museums.) But these two are a tough loss for us and typically the highlight for visitors and spring break staycationers—particularly during an unusually warm week. Around the corner from the City Museum, an adult day care is also closed. I’ve visited there during the holidays in the past, and it’s hard to imagine how they’re all doing.

With spring break travel canceled, my husband has fulfilled his lifelong dream of getting our son hooked on Dungeons and Dragons. —Ellen McGirt, senior editor

San Francisco

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An almost empty Chinatown in San Francisco.
Courtesy of Danielle Abril

On the city’s third day following the shelter-in-place order, some of the most bustling areas in San Francisco—the Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Financial District—are eerily quiet. Buses, usually packed to the doors, are carrying a handful of passengers at most. The subway stations, normally loud, crowded spaces where street performers busk, are almost deserted, with most noise coming from the trains themselves. And the iconic cable cars that cart residents and visitors up and down some of the city’s steepest hills are nowhere to be found, replaced by shuttles for the time being. Pad locks on gated shops line shop-heavy streets.

Everything is closed minus non-essential businesses like grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, and, in San Francisco, cannabis dispensaries that are getting a decent amount of foot traffic. Lines still snake outside several grocery stores, which are limiting the purchase of several products including bread, toilet paper, and paper towels. Locals, many donning masks, are venturing outdoors to walk their dogs, pick up take-out food, and get fresh air, but for the most part are practicing staying six feet apart. Running trails and parks appear to be the liveliest parts of the cities, with people flocking there to enjoy some sun. And while city and state officials are working to temporarily house the homeless, people without a place to go are still sleeping under bus stop canopies and gathering in various pockets of the city. —Danielle Abril, tech writer

March 20, 2020

Long Island

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The line of customers waiting to get in to Costco wraps around the warehouse.
Courtesy of Devin Hance

My local Costco is absolute chaos. The line to get in wraps around the entire warehouse. Panic buying has been a very real thing here. Toilet paper at Costco has been limited to the first 100 people, so the community has banded together to share resources. My dad got a pack from a neighbor.

The children in my cul de sac have made it a routine to congregate after lunch for a game of soccer or to share someone’s trampoline or yard games.

The city is mostly shut down, but living with JFK airport in my backyard, I can’t help but wonder where these incoming and outgoing flights are going. —Devin Hance, video producer

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
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Subscribe to Outbreak, a daily newsletter roundup of stories on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on global business. It’s free to get it in your inbox.