When my friends back home ask me if restaurants are open in Stillwater, I tell them: “If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t even know there’s a virus.”
That’s just how crazy it is.
It’s not to say Stillwater is reckless and isn’t taking proper precautions – that wouldn’t be true.
Fast food restaurants are all drive-thru, workers wear gloves and a mask, things are handled properly, but there isn’t the same sense of panic, fear and uncertainty people, myself included, felt in New Jersey.
I’ll be honest, up until March 11, the day NBA star Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, I didn’t take this virus seriously. I didn’t think it would ever touch me, and I couldn’t even fathom a global pandemic.
Then March 11 hit, and everything changed.
We were all sent home a few days later for spring break, and I made my way back to New Jersey.
At first, it wasn’t so bad. There were some taking precautions, but it was more of a caution than panic.
Then things got bad – quickly.
New Jersey was blitzed with cases as the daily numbers rose exponentially. Well, exponentially is an understatement. We went from an 8 p.m. curfew to a full lockdown in – what felt like – the snap of a finger.
And so there I was, unable to see my friends that I hadn’t conversed with in months, unable to go to pick up a basketball and shoot some hoops, unable to step outside of my house and not feel like we were in an apocalypse.
That’s genuinely how you felt living in New Jersey the past few months.
When you went to the store, everyone had a mask and gloves on – there wasn’t a question. It wasn’t just because it was mandated, but because if you didn’t, you felt social pressure from the hundreds of eyes staring at you as the one person in Walmart who didn’t have a mask on.
People wore masks when they walked around, people wore masks when they drove. I’m sure there were people who wore masks when they were sitting in bed. Maybe.
But that was just the climate. It wasn’t just the physical things you saw, it was how you felt.
I essentially locked myself at home, refusing to leave, while at the same time going a little stir-crazy with the conditions.
It got to the point where it was normal for each one of your friends to know someone who had coronavirus. And if they didn’t, they were the odd ones out.
You didn’t let out a gasp of shock when your friend told you they knew someone who had it, it almost just made sense.
The only time I left the house was to get groceries every week or two. And when I had to, it felt like my psyche was punctured.
When I drove down the street to ShopRite, a simple four-minute drive, it was like driving out into an episode of World War Z.
There were barely any cars around me. And when there were, I didn’t want to get too close because I felt like I would contract COVID-19.
Remember, I was in my car.
It felt like I was committing a crime just being out on the road. When I walked into a store, I felt like I was entering a battle zone. Anytime I had to go outside for something, my morale was deflated.
Let me put it this way: I was once yelled at for holding the door open. And that’s the crazy thing. Our simple mannerisms were squashed.
When things were in a normal state, so many people were so oblivious standing in an aisle at a supermarket, they didn’t notice someone else trying to get by until that person said “excuse me.”
Now, people can’t move aside any faster. I mean, sometimes I didn’t walk into a particular aisle if someone was in it. That’s just how hard this virus messed with my head.
Then I came to Oklahoma.
It started with the drive back to Stillwater. From Pennsylvania to Ohio to Indiana to Illinois to Missouri to Oklahoma – state by state, things just got more lax each time I stopped.
From Pennsylvania, where rest stops were shut down and masks were required, to Ohio, where it was “recommended” and so on, the rules got more and more relaxed.
By the time I reached Missouri, I saw signs at rest stops trying to convince people that coronavirus is indeed real.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
But that’s just where we’re at. Businesses are taking the virus seriously, taking necessary precautions, but life is just so different in Oklahoma.
Perhaps it’s a product of Stillwater, until recently, having zero active cases and fewer than 30 total, but things are definitely more loose here.
I can dab up my friends, I can drive where I want to, I can accidentally touch my face without worrying if I eternally screwed myself.
That sense of freedom has alleviated the tumultuous stress I’ve felt being locked up in New Jersey the past few months.
Maybe it is a false reality, but it’s simply where I’m at in life.
Sudeep Tumma is a student at Oklahoma State University and summer journalism intern at the Stillwater News Press.