On Wednesday morning, a gleaming white Airbus A330 came into view, descending through a cloud of red dust stirred up by an incoming storm. It was Delta Air Lines Flight 9971 from Minneapolis-St. Paul, carrying no passengers and a skeleton crew, one of more than 20 Delta planes that have landed here in the past three days from places including New York and Atlanta.
As the Delta plane taxied, it passed dozens of other aircraft — including several American Airlines regional jets that were being towed and maneuvered to make room for other expected arrivals in the coming days as the nation’s airlines cut service and ground their fleets in response to the novel coronavirus. Their windows were covered with a white wrapping, like blinders on a racehorse, a sealing to prevent the sun from damaging the aircraft interiors as they sit parked for a time as yet unknown.
“It’s gut-wrenching,” said Jim Petty, the airpark manager. The same thing happened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: The nation’s airlines parked their planes under the desert sky, where the warm climate and sunny weather tends to be more protective. But unlike then, he said, when airlines had a sense that business travelers would soon be in the skies again, they are staring into the great unknown.
Petty knows it will get busier. The increased traffic will probably create a new job or two for the companies that store and care for the planes, which lease hundreds of acres from Pinal County, his employer and the owner of the airport. That means more revenue for the county to fund infrastructure and public services. But every new plane these days makes him feel sad and scared because he doesn’t know when of any this will change.
“It almost feels like you are an undertaker,” Petty said. “It’s going to be busier, but I would rather this not be happening. … I really wish this wasn’t happening.”
No one around here can quite remember a moment like this, where life as normal has ground to a sudden halt. Unlike some parts of the country, it took a few days in Arizona, where the number of confirmed cases has been much smaller than in other states — 45 as of Thursday.
Even as stores around the state ran out of hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, toilet paper and other household goods, some people still weren’t convinced coronavirus was real, suggesting it was media hysteria run amok or an illness akin to the flu.
“Remember how Ebola was going to kill us?” said one man, who declined to give his name to a “fake news reporter from The Washington Post” last week outside a Fry’s Food Store in Sun City, Ariz., one of the many expansive retirement communities in the suburbs of Phoenix.
“I’m not worried at all,” the man said, as he steered a cart full of beer, paper towels and Lysol disinfectant spray to his car. He pointed to a chaotic scene around him, where vehicles circled a packed parking lot again and again, honking and competing for any available space. Store employees said it was as busy as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day. “This is what is scares me,” he said. “Not the virus.”
Even as most of the country began to shut down — with national retailers such as Apple closing their stores locally, as they had nationwide — life continued on as usual. Mall parking lots were packed across greater Phoenix through the weekend, including at the Chandler Fashion Center, where patrons who had reserved appointments at the Apple Genius Bar were surprised to be turned away.
Upstairs at the Bath and Body Works, a chain that sells specialty soaps and home scents, store employees were busy, not making sales, but explaining to people that they were sold out of hand sanitizer. Every last bottle was gone, including the samples. “We don’t have it, and I don’t know where to tell you to try,” one of the clerks said.
The bars and restaurants in Old Town Scottsdale and along the trendy Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix were crowded with people of all ages for days, even as Gov. Doug Ducey (R) declared a state of emergency and state health officials urged residents and visitors to adhere to federal guidelines that advise social distancing.
But on Tuesday, something seemed to change. Following the lead of other cities across the country, the mayors of Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff announced new restrictions, closing bars and restaurants except for takeout service. Cars thinned out on the roads, except at grocery stores, where the mood somehow became more chaotic.
At a Fry’s Food Store off busy Camelback Road in central Phoenix, the shelves of vodka and grain alcohol were cleaned out. An aisle away, a man was spotted stacking his cart full of boxes of Franzia wine, specifically the Sunset Blush variety.
His frantic nature caused one woman to stop dead in her tracks. “Welcome to the zombie apocalypse,” she said.
On local talk radio, where the subject of the coronavirus had been discussed as an almost distant and unthreatening phenomenon, hosts suddenly struck a much more serious tone about the potential effect, and some openly questioned if the federal government wasn’t being frank enough about the disruption of daily life. “What if we have to shelter for a year? Two years?” one host theorized on KTAR, a news/talk station in Phoenix.
By Wednesday, stores were quieter. Many had opened early to allow seniors to shop safely, though many essential items were still sold out, including milk and eggs. Outside Fry’s, a man wearing a cowboy hat sat on a concrete barrier along the sidewalk, waiting for his ride back to his retirement facility. He kept his distance from a reporter, as he had everyone that morning, because he feared getting sick. “I’m sorry,” he said apologetically, waving with his cane.
Across Phoenix, hotels that had been sold out up until Sunday night were now virtually empty. In one downtown hotel, fewer than 20 of its 250 rooms were filled, transforming what had been a bustling hotel into something reminiscent of “The Shining.” In the hotel bar, which had been empty for days, the staff stood silently watching televisions tuned to different channels, but all playing footage of President Trump.
At the rental car facility at the Phoenix airport, thousands of cars sat parked in every available space, including on sidewalks, and were parked bumper to bumper in the garage. At Hertz, there were almost no customers, save for a reporter, and staff pointed to handmade signs leading to a new pickup area — a single lane of about 20 cars that had been left clear so renters could drive out. An employee said there had been “hundreds, and I mean hundreds” of cancellations that day. “I’ve only helped about 15 customers all day,” she said, the same number usually serviced in a half-hour at the facility. “It’s scary.”
In Tucson, where the downtown area has been transformed by a litany of new restaurants and bars, the city was eerily silent. No one could remember a time when the streets were so empty. On block after block, stores and theaters were closed. “F U coronavirus,” the marquee at the Rialto Theater read.
While dining in was restricted, many restaurants had posted large signs in the windows advertising that they were open for takeout. But as a heavy rain fell, there was little foot traffic to speak of. Staff members at various establishments peered out the windows; at another, they sat at a table near the window, playing cards. Many students at the nearby University of Arizona were gone, its classes moved to online sessions until further notice, taking away one of their biggest customer bases.
“We’re open,” said a server at Diablo Burger, an Arizona-based chain, who was taking orders from customers who first had to knock on the front window. “But it’s been very slow.”
At a gas station outside a Safeway, there was a long line of cars trying to fill up, even in the heavy rain. “I didn’t really need gas,” admitted Elizabeth Myers, a retiree, as she pumped fuel into her red SUV. But she was nervous that something might happen, that people might be too sick to deliver fuel or that the oil industry might collapse. She wasn’t worried about getting sick.
“I’m worried about the country falling apart,” she said.