On Sunday morning, the emails from the church arrived bearing the news that the Rev. Timothy Cole, 59, its beloved and affable rector, had fallen ill and been hospitalized and that services would be canceled for the foreseeable future.
Then on Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) issued a public health advisory aimed at the church, urging the more than 500 worshipers who may have encountered Cole as he presided over services March 1 and at other points in the past two weeks to self-quarantine for 14 days. Late Monday, Christ Church said its organist, Tom Smith, 39, also had been infected with the coronavirus.
And the virus’s sweep had now reached the halls of Congress, with President Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), and two other lawmakers self-quarantining after coming into contact with an infected person at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.
Activities scuttled by the Metropolitan Club bridge players included a meeting with a gubernatorial candidate, a trip to inspect an easement for a local historic preservation group, a ski trip to Utah with grandkids and a quick zip to an auto body shop in Northeast to get a bumper fixed. After conferring quickly, Gray, Nitze and Williamson decided that the Monday bridge game was out of the question, too.
“We have shut down and self-quarantined,” said Nitze, 77, who consulted twice with his son in Brookline, Mass., before making what in the end seemed like an inescapable call.
The three men, former partners in law firms and movers in government and industry, live steps away from one another in Georgetown. They were joined by many other church members in deciding to voluntarily hole up until the danger passes. They cited a sense of duty to their neighbors and the public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has been striking older adults and immune-suppressed people hardest. A good portion of the Christ Church congregation is elderly, although none interviewed reported symptoms.
The congregation is “highly motivated,” with many members who have served in the military, the government and other community-minded jobs, said church altar guild member Sally Wilhelm, 68, an author, adjunct professor and former health reporter for The Washington Post. “This is a population that has been involved in a lot of public service and cares a lot about the country.”
In fact, Cole was a senior chaplain in the British army for more than 20 years.
Most church members are also in the enviable position of being able to do the right thing — with plenty of money and ample sick leave, the ability to work from home or no need to work at all. It would be much harder if they weren’t so affluent, said Williamson’s wife, Kathe Williamson.
“We’re fine,” she said. “It would be very difficult for someone who wouldn’t get paid to self-quarantine.”
Wilhelm had been in her Woodley Park home packing to visit her 93-year-old father, who had just had surgery in St. Petersburg, Fla., for a pacemaker, when she received the email about Cole. She didn’t think twice about self-quarantining and, in fact, she considered it fortuitous, she said, given that she had served on the altar guild during the 11:15 a.m. service March 1, receiving her Communion wafer directly from Cole.
“I’m really glad I learned before I got on the plane,” possibly imperiling her dad and others, she said.
Although most parishioners appear to be taking the self-quarantining guidelines seriously, James Cannon was struck by another piece of advice: Don’t panic.
The 67-year-old from Silver Spring, Md., attended the late-morning service on March 1, and shook Cole’s hand at the end of the service, he said. He washed his hands later, comfortable that Cole appeared healthy and practiced good hygiene.
On Monday, he went golfing in Reston, Va., keeping a club’s distance away from friends and riding his cart solo on the course. He planned to contact a doctor, but felt no symptoms, he said.
“This isn’t the black plague; we are not dropping like flies,” Cannon said. “I guess I’ve just been around too long to think we all need to go in shelter mode.”
Gray was far less certain about what to do. He thought he should somehow quarantine himself but he wasn’t sure how far to take it — he had been at an earlier service on March 1 and had no contact with Cole. No one was coughing around him in church; he hadn’t shared a hymnal.
The 77-year-old former partner at WilmerHale had ventured to the small law firm he now runs in downtown Washington on Monday before hearing the self-quarantine news. He was a prominent member of the church, as White House counsel under President George H.W. Bush and later President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the European Union, and this made him worry. If people recognized him, would they think he was purposely flouting the advice to self-quarantine?
Confused, he headed home, deciding that perhaps sharing cards in a game of bridge wasn’t in anybody’s best interest.
Meanwhile, his two buddies were making the most of it at home, too. Edwin Williamson, 80, and Kathe had decided to postpone a ski trip Thursday to Utah with their grandchildren, but that was fine. They had been married 50 years and were fully at ease in each other’s company. Their doctor had told them that a walk would be just fine if they stayed away from other pedestrians, so they strolled about in the sunshine on Monday.
Kathe had decided to use what was left in the cupboard and made the Barefoot Contessa’s Italian wedding soup with the chicken stock they had around. “Vienna Blood,” a PBS mystery series set in early-20th-century Vienna, was on the menu for entertainment.
Nitze, their bridge partner, was suddenly no longer saddled with mundane duties — a trip to collect his 2010 Honda Civic hybrid from the shop and an inspection of an easement as part of his role on a historic preservation committee. Like his friends, he was not anxious about the coronavirus.
“This is a case of you do what you have to do and make the best of it,” said Nitze, a former general counsel for Mobil Oil and a trustee at the Aspen Institute who serves on the boards of several companies.
On Monday afternoon, that meant a solitary jog around the neighborhood and perhaps more time contemplating the Pirkei Avot, a part of the Talmud also known as “Ethics of the Fathers.”
In keeping with the Lenten season, he is using his retreat from daily life to reflect on big questions. Of course, this is something he does anyway — mulling over the coming “environmental apocalypse” and what he thinks will be the likely dominance of artificial intelligence over the human race about 200 years from now. He co-teaches a class in AI and ethics at George Mason University.
“I spend a fair amount of time thinking about some of these bigger questions. I have no answers,” he said. “I have extra time to think about them now.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the university where William Nitze co-teaches an AI and ethics course. This version has been corrected.
Fenit Nirappil, Rebecca Tan and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.