• Susan Markenstein


Updated: Apr 5

Pandemics and Politics Make Strange Bedfellows

By: Susan Markenstein

April 4, 2020

The United States Naval hospital ship – christened the “Mercy” – pulled into New York harbor last week. It is quite majestic. A huge vessel, all-white with large red crosses painted on the sides and the front. It was originally designated to take only non-Covid-19 patients. My immediate thought was that the limitation would not last long. Indeed, within a few days, President Trump, being responsive to Governor Cuomo’s request, revised its mandate to include treatment of Covid-19 patients.**

Despite the existence of what seems to be, generally, an effective working relationship between federal and state leadership, criticisms abound. Rancor festers on the cable news networks, as one consortium of outlets devotes countless hours and interviews to casting the President in the usual negative light. The alternative group of commentators relentlessly extol his virtues, talents and superiority. In fairness, the latter group must always over-exert itself to correct for the gross exaggerations, spin and falsehoods. Some of the news folk favorable to Mr. Trump are a bit obsequious. It’s true. No matter. If my memory serves me correctly, Obama had his own groupies. Every President (or would-be) is entitled to his or her own fan base—one could hardly achieve the Office without one. The antipathy expressed by some for this President, however, is like nothing we have ever seen. His supporters have no choice but to come on full throttle.

But a deadly virus is infecting Americans at a disastrous rate. People are sequestered in their homes. Small businesses are in jeopardy. The job losses are startling. The new infections are increasing rather than decreasing. More people died today than yesterday. We have to do something different.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio calls it a war (as does the President) and lobbies for some seemingly extraordinary measures, such as a civil draft, of sorts, for the national pool of health care workers. A bold proposal. As an American (and if I were a healthcare worker) I would prefer to have the choice to volunteer. One can certainly understand Mr. de Blasio’s fervent pitch, given the nature of the circumstances. Nevertheless, it’s a weighty proposition. Many healthcare workers across the country have answered the call to arms, so perhaps further consideration of compulsory service for healthcare workers won’t be necessary. However, it would lend some certainty and guaranteed manpower to a piece of pure chaos. His proposal, although unpalatable to some, is understandable and worthy of discussion.

Governor Cuomo has adopted his own version of the “Fireside Chat,” appearing each day shortly before noon—informing, calming and empowering his own New Yorkers, and surely the rest of the country. Cuomo has partnered at moments in a warm and charming way with his brother, Christopher (recently afflicted with this virus), to connect to others on a human level, delivering comfort and reducing despair. Governor Cuomo’s manner is paternal and persuasive. Doubtful anyone would argue he is less than an effective and able crisis leader. Governor Murphy is likewise leading the charge here in New Jersey. These two states are hard hit and the messages these leaders are broadcasting should be given substantial attention and consideration.

Political ideologies and persuasions have to take a backseat right now, and that swings both ways.

Someone I have known for many years spoke with me over the phone the other day. It didn’t take long for the conversation to shift to the coronavirus. This person suddenly exploded into an angry rant over what she asserts are Donald Trump’s abject failures and terminal deficiencies. (This is, in truth, a light characterization of what she said). It went beyond the usual. In short, she blames the President for this virus. Literally. She believes he is responsible for the people who have died from Covid-19. When I responded with a cordial, if not somewhat patronizing, “c’mon, you don’t really think Donald Trump is responsible for the coronavirus…,” she flew into a rage. She accused me of getting my information from Fox News. We bantered for another minute or so before she ended the call, lest, according to her, our relationship be forever affected.

In fairness, and by way of disclaimer, I do watch Fox News. Not all of it, and not religiously. The Five, Greg Gutfeld and Justice with Jeanine – although I wish them all well – are not interesting to me and, frankly, tend to grate on the nerves a bit. I spend more time reading and on my smartphone. I am partial to the programs Tucker Carlson and Bill Hemmer host. As an attorney, I was trained to recognize spin, unravel it, correct it and also to craft it myself. Spin is actually only truly effective when done smartly, with grace and subtle nuance. Not a whole lot of that going on in some of these cable news screeds. I am often amused (or bemused) at the way the facts in a news story these days do not often support the incendiary headline. As intelligent people, we can all read and listen critically. We typically choose to hear what we want to hear and align ourselves with those whom we feel represent and share our interests and opinions. Right now, people are dying, and others are trying to save lives. We have a mutual, superior, shared interest in those two things. That trumps (no pun intended) the hackneyed discourse that has permeated the airwaves for the last three and a half years.

Dr. Anthony Fauci stated, during a news interview in January, that the coronavirus did not pose a major threat the United States. Obviously on the radar and evolving, in late January, the President halted all incoming travel from China. That was a critical decision that undoubtedly saved untold lives. Dr. Fauci – everyone’s favorite hero these days – agrees. In the ensuing months, as this virus descended on the country, the President sought to impart a calm and positive outlook to the country. I understood what he was doing, and I appreciated it. He put in place a skilled and effective task force. He embraces their recommendations. The President has pragmatically evolved with the rapidly changing circumstances. He has even softened his tone and shown some kindness (or at least patience) toward his nemeses in the press pool. Perhaps our President is the most misunderstood man in America. We can address that subject later. For now, it is fair to say that he is, once again, being unfairly maligned. This national sport has to take a hiatus in order for us to effectively deal with the crisis at hand.

If the Governor of the State of New York did not anticipate the future need for a stockpile of ventilators to meet the current surreal demands, does anyone really fault him for that? And if he did, it is, in this moment, irrelevant. We need to send all available ventilators to New York (and any other available tools and resources that Governor Cuomo says, in conjunction with his own task force, they need). He will send the ventilators back, or on to the next battlefield. He will also send his own resources to help others. He would do so in any event. If a person is dying for lack of air, political philosophies and the future electability of our leaders have no place at her bedside. No voter will forget a blithe, albeit perhaps unintentional, dismissal of the overarching life and death realities in favor of adherence to a political tenet.

This virus is going to run its course. When it’s over, we will have learned lessons we can apply in the future so we do not find ourselves at the same disadvantages should another pandemic reach our shores. Right now, saving lives is the order of the day—whatever that takes. Compassion, empathy, humility, wisdom—we are suffering critical shortages these days. We all become better people, and better versions of ourselves, for having endured hardships and crises. We also do our best when constructive criticism is balanced with positive feedback and encouragement.

We have to rise above the fray, read past the “spin,” look for the good in others and give a person the benefit of the doubt. “Like a miracle” (to coin a much-repeated recent quote of the President’s), we might discover the person we disdained so is a human being most familiar.

**Correction: This article incorrectly states that the USNS Mercy was directed to begin treating Covid-19 patients. The Jacob K. Javitz Center, originally designated for non-Covid-19 patients, was directed to begin treating Covid-19 patients. The USNS Mercy continues to treat patients that present with illnesses other than Covid-19. April 5, 2020.


Our Restaurants, Covid-19 and the “New Normal”

By: Susan Markenstein

Restaurants are losing, big time, in this health crisis. As a person who eats out more than she eats in, I am more than mildly interested and concerned. I derive this custom from my mother. My mother loves diners. It’s a Jersey thing. I like diners too, and all kinds of restaurants and eateries. (Actually, so does she). Fine restaurants, middling ones, diners and coffee shops – we love them all. My mother is feeling the loss in a profound way.

My mother is 80 years old, but one would never know it. She drives a 2002 Buick Century – just enough car to get her around the less than eight-mile radius she canvasses. Her route includes St. Dominic’s Parish on Saturday afternoon for the sacrament of reconciliation (“Confession,” as we call it) and Mass. She stops at Shoprite or Walgreens to pick up paper towels and a magazine, and then heads over to “the Diner.” My mother has a cherished diner she goes to at least two to three times per week. She has a favorite server named Misty and she loves the fried filet. My mother is fully ambulatory and loves to chat. She also has COPD and a pacemaker, inserted after she developed atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure ten years ago. Needless to say, my mother is in a high-risk group as it relates to the Coronavirus. These days, she is self-quarantined (at my insistence) in her small apartment. She is completely dependent on the meals I prepare and bring to her. I, too, have embraced all the recommendations for avoiding spread of this virus (social distancing, hand washing, homebound except for the necessaries). When I bring the food in, I insist she remain on the other side of the room (six feet, at least) and she does not get a hug. No church, no diner, no hugs. Not easy.

The other day, my mother called and asked if I would bring her some “fast food.” Aside from the fact that this is not typically the best food choice for someone her age with high blood pressure (medication-managed), I flatly told her “no.” First, let me say, I am not an alarmist and I believe in moderation. I have many times fetched her a fast food burger, fries (no salt) and a milkshake. I believe in freedom of choice, and if that is what she wants, I get it for her. At her age, mother of six, painfully widowed, if she wants fast food, I will not stand in her way. However, I am not confident, during this Covid-19 pandemic, in the steps restaurants have taken to ensure the safety of their food, prepared out of sight, and handed to me in a bag, through a window. Some may quarrel with that assessment. Nevertheless, as a consumer, I get to be unreasonable (if that concern is, in fact, so).

How did I develop such apprehension, being a restaurant devotee and reasonable and moderate and all of that? When this virus initially descended, and the restaurants were closed, save take-away, I did not immediately decide I would stop eating food prepared in restaurants. In the earlier days of the pandemic, I picked up shrimp with broccoli from our local Chinese food place (sorry, everyone in my world still calls it “Chinese food”). It was good.

Before Governor Murphy ordered all non-essential businesses closed, I had, sort of, done so with my own. I have a small, growing law practice in Toms River, New Jersey, with a part-time assistant. I can easily (and many times do) work from home and I thought it best for both of us if she were to stay home for the week. On one of the last days I went to my office, I stopped at a drive-through for a cup of coffee. When I pulled up to the window, there was no social distancing happening among the people preparing the food and coffee, darting back and forth behind the window. Their un-gloved hands were wrapped around the mouths of the cups as they held them under spigots dispensing cold and hot beverages. Their faces, at a bent-arm’s length, measured much less than the requisite six feet from the cup. No one was wearing a mask. In these times unprecedented in my generation, that was too risky for me. As much as I love food from restaurants of all types, I decided I would only eat the food and drink the coffee that I prepare.

As we watch news clips of restaurants reporting apocalyptic losses (Cheesecake Factory recently announced it cannot pay its rent at its multiple locations), food establishments must adopt the “new normal” and implement a safety protocol. There needs to be social distancing inside the food prep areas. Those preparing the food should be wearing masks and gloves. Indeed, the news clips involving food bank volunteers show them all donning those protective items. That seems to be best practices for the rest of us to follow. Hand washing must be paramount. The food establishments then need to publicize their adoption of those stringent safety measures. It is necessary if the restaurant industry is to continue to thrive. We need to put people at ease. This is important beyond the enjoyment and convenience factor of having someone else prepare our dinner.

I am reminded of a small local business I discovered just as the virus was gaining traction. In Toms River, on Washington Street, a block or so from the courthouse and three blocks from my office, there is a tiny coffee shop called “Bubby’s Beanery.” I had never gone in Bubby’s before because it would have required me to find parking in one of the metered spots, and it was easier not to. One day, however, I parked and went in. I must say that little coffee shop made me the most delicious cup of java I have ever enjoyed. It was more than worthy of the small inconvenience of limited, metered parking. Unfortunately, a week later, it was closed (temporarily, I trust).

We must not let this virus (which will run its course, eventually) completely derail us. We can adapt, take protective measures, and get back to the business of living. We can pull together and protect each other as best we can. We can support those who are on the front lines taking care of us by following the protocol designed to limit the spread of this illness. We can also champion those who are working tirelessly to lead us to the other side of this crisis by supporting them with our cooperation and goodwill.

I, for one, would like to return to the halcyon days of dining out. I want our economy to return to prosperous. I want to earn money and spend it in the numerous small businesses within my community. I would also like to see my mother back in church on Easter Sunday (we can hope . . . ).

Bon appetite.


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