We All Have That Moment When We Realized That This Pandemic Was Real

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy, CDC/Pexels and JGI/Tom Grill/Getty

It’s been nearly a year since the COVID-19 crisis began, and while the spread of the virus actually started much earlier — the first known cases of novel coronavirus was diagnosed in Wuhan, China in December 2019 — COVID-19 didn’t feel like a threat to Americans for some time. After all, out of sight, out of mind. But the moment when things changed is something I’ll always remember. It is something, collectively speaking, we will never forget. And yet that moment is different for everyone.

For some, it was school or work closures. For others, it was shutdowns and lockdowns. Citywide efforts to quarantine the virus and slow the spread. And for others, it was the sight of masks. That, or the absence of toilet paper on grocery store shelves. But for me? I realized COVID-19 was “real” when I went to sing karaoke on March 13 and was handed a sterile glove.

Of course, I know this sounds crazy. By today’s standards, my actions were reckless, dangerous, and absurd. I was naive through and through, but you have to remember these were the early days, before we realized the scope and severity of this disease. It was also my birthday, and I selfishly wanted to sing Alanis Morissette in Atlantic City. And I am not alone. While my friends weren’t downing beers and belting out ballads like “Ironic” and “You Oughta Know,” thanks to Facebook memories, Timehop, and long outdated calendar alerts, many of us are remembering where we were (and how we felt) when things changed.


Getty Images/Maskot

Here are some of the most relatable stories, revelations, and recollections.

  • “I realized things were ‘real’ when disposable masks replaced water bottles all over my car.” — Laura Pinto
  • “The severity of the COVID crisis struck me when my four-year-old was packing up her baby doll to leave the house and asked if I had a mask for her.” — Rachel Sobel
  • “COVID became ‘real’ when I spent hours online looking for the ‘perfect’ homemade mask. I had a list of requirements (nose clip, adjustable ear loops, layers of fabric and filter pocket) but I felt like I was shopping for a car or house. It was important and intense.” — Gretchen Kelly
  • “I became worried when my mother-in-law was put into full lockdown before anywhere else in the world (except Wuhan) and we realized we could not get to her if something happened.” — Lynn Morrison
  • “COVID felt real to me when my son’s bus driver pulled up wearing a mask and gloves. We’d heard that a few bus drivers nearby had tested positive. Also, when I spoke to my sister who lives in Seattle, where the first outbreak was, things became intense. They were even more scared and vigilant than New York City was.” — Wendy Wisner
  • “When I started traveling with a five-gallon bucket-turned-toilet in my car I knew COVID was real. Everywhere was closed, and when a five-year-old and three-year-old gotta go, they’ve GOTTA GO! There were several emergencies where we just had to find a tree and hide under it.” — Nikki Bates
  • “My moment was when I was afraid to hug my mom. It was very sad and confusing.” — Sarah Cottrell
  • “Not exactly life changing, but the moment I knew things were turning upside down in a scary way was when I picked up my kids from school on a Friday and they had just announced we were shutting down. I let them linger on the playground (thinking they already had whatever germs they’d already picked up earlier) because I knew we wouldn’t be out again..” — Elaine Roth
  • “I realized COVID was real when, as an essential retail worker, I was expected to return to work and run the business with minimal to no changes to preventions.” — Carl Andy Nevill
  • “It was a Thursday, and I wanted to go to Target. My boys said they didn’t want to go but I said ‘get your fucking shoes on. This is going to be the last time we go to Target for a long time.’ I spent $300. I bought double makeup and a bucket of Legos, knowing we weren’t going to be out by Easter. I bought four games. But saying fuck in front of the kids? That was my moment.” — Elizabeth Broadbent
  • “My husband, who is always levelheaded and never worries about anything, came home from work one day and suggested we stock up on supplies because ‘the shit’s about the hit the fan.’ That’s when I knew things were really going south, because he isn’t the alarmist type.” — Rita Templeton

Of course, there are other moments. Thanks to NPR’s “Weekend Edition” host Lulu Garcia-Navarro, #TheMoment was trending on Twitter. She (and the hashtag) asked followers to share #TheMoment when they realized that things were going to be different. But can you guess the most common moment? Well, for many people, #TheMoment they realized they were entering pandemic life happened in the grocery store, as they stocked up on nonperishable food or found complete sections wiped out.

“The first time I went grocery shopping when things were shutting down, I could only get store-brand toilet paper and cardboard applicator tampons. And there was no garlic. (I live in a largely Latinx neighborhood.) It looked post-apocalyptic. I knew then shit was real,” Sa’iyda Shabazz tells Scary Mommy.

“I went to Target sometime in the first week of March, and every shelf that had held bleach, sanitizing cleaner, and spray was empty,” one Twitter user writes. “That was the moment I felt my stomach drop and panic start to set in.”

“March 14 going to get groceries and seeing this in the meat case,” another Twitter user explained. “It was relatively early in the day and I couldn’t believe how bare the shelves were. I remember talking with a young woman at the customer service desk and her saying it was busier than any holiday she had ever worked.”

This is not the first time we have endured a collective moment, trauma, or memory. Those from the Silent Generation — and Boomers — often recall where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and Americans regularly reminiscence about the terrorist attacks of September 11, i.e. where they were when the World Trade Centers came down. I was, for example, in homeroom during the second day of my senior year. And while we will overcome the COVID crisis as we have past crises— more individuals are being vaccinated each day and COVID rates are beginning to fall — we will never forget where we were when the world, as we knew it, changed.

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