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Social distancing matters. Here is how to do it and how it can help curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

USA TODAY

Two weeks ago, I came home from work and my kitchen was gutted and there was a thick plastic sheet covering the passage from kitchen to living room.

I told my wife, “All I did was sneeze. Once. In the kitchen.”

No, she said. She reminded me that it had nothing to do with the coronavirus.

Instead, at long last, the kitchen remodel she had long planned was underway. 

My wife is a planner in the same way Eisenhower was a planner. Think of D-Day.

As the disease COVID-19 spreads from continent to continent, nation to nation, city to city, things have gotten more serious and more personal.

We have a presumptive positive case in Greene County and my employer, Gannett, like many other employers, wants people to work from home.

It’s called “social distancing,” which means keeping a distance of about six feet from another person. That way, you are out of sneeze range, which is one way the virus spreads.

To slow the spread, cities are locked down, large gatherings canceled or postponed. 

Springfield’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade was canceled. Many cities did the same thing.

Related: Springfield-area events canceled or postponed due to coronavirus

As I write this, Eureka Springs still planned to hold its 25th annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday, March 14.

I’ve come to believe that parades right now are foolish. Two weeks ago, I would have scoffed and thought cancellation an overreaction.

In large part, I’ve changed my mind because I’ve read a fascinating bit of history called the “Deadliest Parade.”

It occurred on Sept. 28, 1918, in Philadelphia, during the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.

That pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States, a number 10 times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in World War I.

It infected one-fifth of the world’s population and killed more people than the “black death” bubonic plague of 1347 to 1351.

Health officials knew in 1918 there was great risk in having a parade in a major city. But since the parade served as a fundraiser for the war effort, some argued it was unpatriotic to cancel.

About 200,000 people crammed into downtown Philadelphia to watch the two-mile parade.

Within three days, every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was filled by influenza patients, according to a recent story in the Washington Post.

This was the flu strain that had ravaged military camps and battlefields all over Europe and now, as the war approached its ultimate end in November, it had invaded cities.

Within a week, more than 45,000 people in Philadelphia were infected with influenza, as the entire city ground to a halt.

Within six weeks, more than 12,000 Philadelphians were dead; there weren’t enough coffins to bury them all.

At about the same time, St. Louis canceled a similar fundraising parade for public health reasons. The death toll there was no more than 700.

Clearly, social distancing works. Avoid large crowds.

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New currency: Toilet paper, sanitizer

Recent days have been strange. It reminds me of how the world changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

I recall how odd it was to not see or hear a single plane in the sky.

It was the eerie absence of something rather than the presence of something.

No March Madness. Who would have thought that a month ago?

For months I have trained for the Go! St. Louis half-marathon on March 29. It was just canceled.

The stock market has plunged; I dare not look at my 401(k).

Toilet paper and hand sanitizer are the coin of the realm.

My co-worker Wyatt Wheeler called me Thursday. He said that since we might not be seeing each other — because we had been encouraged to work from home — he wanted to check in because, at my age, 66, I might not be long for this world.

I am calm. I am healthy. If I become infected, I reason, it would be no different than contracting the regular flu.

But what chaos would ensue should someone like Tom Hanks or NBA player Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz dies from the disease?

Such a death would shatter the confidence of many who firmly believe the disease is fatal only for the elderly who already are burdened with multiple health problems.

In a year, will we look back and chastise ourselves for being naive to the danger ahead?

Or will we be embarrassed by our overreaction and our supply of year-old toilet paper in the garage?

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Just me and Harry, 15 feet apart

Right now in the newsroom, as I write this, it’s just me and reporter Harrison Keegan. We maintain social distancing; we sit about 15 feet apart.

In what I facetiously will call great foresight, Gannett seemingly has anticipated this need for social distancing by reducing staff. In 1987, we had 87 newsroom employees. Now we have 17.

Harry and I could actually choose from several empty newsroom offices.

I plan to continue to come to work in the office, in large part because my home ratlles from the sounds of saws and hammers as our new kitchen takes shape. 

My life is so disjointed that my wife informed me today that I had received two boxes in the mail. I told her I had purchased a stand for my kayak; I would assemble it and place it in the backyard behind the shed. My goal is to get the kayak off the garage floor.

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In response to the packages, she led me into the garage — which has become the workshop for the kitchen-cabinet maker — and showed me my kayak.

It was hanging off the ground, suspended by straps and a pulley system. 

She had ordered it and then asked one of the guys working on the kitchen to install it. He apparently has three kayaks at home stored this way.

“How long has it been up there?” I asked.

“About a week. I guess I should have told you.”

These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper eight years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, spokin@gannett.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.

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