Every time I touched a doorknob or a surface that one of the movers might have breathed or coughed on, I lathered up for two rounds of Happy Birthday. Three hours into the nine-hour move, the skin on my hands stung, and I felt newfound sympathy for germaphobe Howard Hughes, or at least Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of him in “The Aviator,” scrubbing his hands until they bled.
Before the move, I talked to public health experts to design as fail-safe a plan as possible.
“We have to evolve to understanding we’re living with this virus,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco. “We’re in this for the long haul. You’re going to have to move.”
Although I had to move despite the novel coronavirus, millions of Americans relocated this year because of it, a Pew Research Center survey found. They moved out of housing they could no longer afford, out of areas they perceived as dangerous and out of abruptly closed college dormitories.
Packing up and moving themselves might be the safest course, especially for strong, fit 20-somethings, said Megan Ranney, associate professor of emergency medicine and public health at Brown University.
“Life goes on, even during this crazy period,” she said. “It becomes a question of weighing risks and benefits. In some ways, doing it yourself is potentially safer.”
On the other hand, as an emergency physician, she regularly cares for patients after they drop a couch on their foot or throw out their back hoisting a brick-heavy carton.
My husband and I concluded that — given my meager strength, his diminished muscularity since gyms closed here three months before and our advancing ages — we’d be more likely to stay out of the hospital if we hired movers to transport our belongings.
Plus, we have an upright piano.
Ranney and Bibbins-Domingo said that with movers, the best defense against the coronavirus is the same arsenal of virus-resistance tools as those public health officials tout for a trip to the grocery — face coverings, physical distance and good hygiene.
And you want to hire movers taking the utmost precautions.
“The most important thing you’re doing is to make sure the people who are helping you move have the lowest risk of having the virus,” Bibbins-Domingo said. “The emphasis should be on making sure it doesn’t enter your house to begin with.”
Via FaceTime, I grilled the estimator about coronavirus safety measures his moving company was taking. None of the company’s 20 movers had been sick, he said. Everyone who came to my house would wear a face covering, would have his temperature taken that morning and would have access to unlimited hand sanitizer.
What about gloves?
The movers found it difficult to grip furniture while wearing gloves, and they were more likely to cross contaminate surfaces in gloves than if they regularly washed their hands and applied sanitizer, he said.
Bibbins-Domingo stressed the value of testing essential workers, like movers, for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
I asked the estimator whether the movers had been tested. Although they had access to free covid-19 testing through the local public health department, none had been tested. Regrettably, I saw it as unlikely that I’d find a company that was having their workers tested and could move me in time.
Even if the movers had all been tested, the possibility remained that one of them, or I, could be carrying the virus and remained presymptomatic or asymptomatic.
“The best practice is to go through the world as if everybody has covid, including yourself, because you just don’t know,” Ranney said.
“I think we have to acknowledge that a significant proportion of coronavirus is in asymptomatic people,” Bibbins-Domingo said.
While researchers are still waiting for a gold-standard study of asymptomatic transmission, a June review of the research in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that as many as 45 percent of people with covid-19 infections have no symptoms and can transmit the virus to others for possibly two weeks or longer.
My husband and I assumed that we could be carrying the virus and strapped on our Army green cloth masks as soon as we heard the moving trucks pull into our driveway. By then I had opened every window in both the old and the new house in an effort to keep the air flowing and to flush out any virus-laden particles that we, or the movers, might shed.
In addition, at the suggestion of my cousin who moved the same week, I designated one bathroom at both houses for the movers to use exclusively.
Flushing the toilet can lift the virus up from the bowl, a June study found. For those who have only one bathroom, insisting upon closing the toilet seat before the movers flush could help contain the problem.
I felt grateful that I could direct the moving men to a bathroom I did not need to use, in part because I felt no control over most everything else.
When the movers arrived, only one of the five was masked. They did all put on face coverings before entering my house. But most wore them as chin guards while grunting and groaning and pushing the 500-pound piano up three flights of outside steps.
One of the movers had a persistent peek-a-boo problem. Every time he looked down, the blue fabric fell below his nose. I lightheartedly mentioned the malfunction to the supervisor, who said he would try to find another mask. But he never did.
At the urging of Rochelle Ereman, an epidemiologist for Marin County, where I live, I packed absolutely everything before the movers arrived. I also packed suitcases with clothes and bedding for three days and transported them and enough kitchen items for a few days to the new place in my car.
There was no good science for waiting 72 hours before taking clothes out of my dresser or sleeping on my bed. It was likely overkill. But nobody ends up on a ventilator because of overkill.
The first night in our new house, my exhausted husband and I looked longingly at our unmade bed. But we spent three nights on an inflatable next to it.
Some experts suggested changing the sheets and wiping down the headboard. But I didn’t think I’d be comfortable sleeping in it after Ereman’s email description of the problem: “Oh, the bed. That’s tough. Movers will be handling it and their faces will be right next to it.”
The anxiety could be worse than sleeping on the floor, I decided.
“The tough thing about the pandemic is you can get into a cycle of endless prevention actions,” Ranney said. “Anxiety can be detrimental, and if you worry about it, that’s going to hurt you just as much as getting covid.”
As we unpacked boxes, filled our cupboards and shouted hello to our friendly new neighbors through masks and over fences, our nervousness started to ease. Still, we sweated every cough and sneeze for the first two weeks, the incubation period for the coronavirus.
When it passed and we emerged covid-free, our anxiety lifted, and we relaxed comfortably into our new home.