Covid Traps Impatient Americans in Endless Lines for Everything


Few of the coronavirus’ many inconveniences tax Americans like the line.

Food banks in Vermont and Arizona have miles-long queues of cars. At testing sites in Florida, motorists show up with full gas tanks to keep air conditioning pumping all day. Travel to Europe is off, with America waiting behind other nations to re-enter someday. Even the electronic realm is tied up: Amid 11% unemployment, people applying for benefits report frozen computer screens and abrupt phone disconnections. Sometimes, the reward waiting at the end is simply a chance to try again tomorrow.

To a nation defined by abundance, the lines amount to an assault on a way of life. The most mundane tasks have become time-sucks suffused with anxiety over a pathogen that’s claimed more than 130,000 American lives and sickened nearly 3 million, and which is thriving in at least 40 states.

Some waits are downright humiliating. Basic human needs are confessed to total strangers, with relief dependent on their kindness.

“We have to hope that the person next to us in line will hold our place while we use the bathroom — Subway usually doesn’t mind if we use theirs,” said Kara Eaton, a 27-year-old industrial welder from Eufaula, Oklahoma, who has waited in all-day unemployment lines about 10 times since her hours were cut in mid-June.

In Clackamas, Oregon, a Portland suburb, Rachelle Basaraba on July 3 swung in behind customers standing 6 feet apart on red hibiscus images emblazoned on a sidewalk outside Trader Joe’s, whose occupancy limit was lowered to slow the virus’ spread. An employee handed out bottled water.

“Having to be patient and wait your turn — I don’t know if that’s necessarily the American way,” said Basaraba, 42, a human-relations manager. In Denmark, where her employer is headquartered, she said, a “herd mentality” and respect for rules bring order to queuing, a quality she called “a positive thing.”

Covid Traps Impatient Americans in Endless Lines for Everything

Indeed, lines seem foreign to Americans. They summon images of stoic Britons standing in the rain for World War II rations or communists waiting for turnips. Yankee ingenuity engineered side attractions to distract and entertain the masses thronging Disney thrill rides. In Las Vegas, slot machines are situated wherever there might be a moment of down time. But in the coronavirus era, there are no magical payoffs.

For the first time since the Great Depression, Americans are subject to widespread limits of resources, according to J. Jeffrey Inman, a marketing professor and associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business.

“The U.S. is getting a dose of the scarcity economy, and we don’t like it,” Inman said. “The U.S. has gotten spoiled where we’ve always had a plentiful, efficient supply chain. Now we’re seeing what can happen once it gets disrupted.”

Lower animals had the behavior down eons ago. Spiny lobsters migrate single file and ants march in lines, following pheromones. Fossilized remains from 480 million years ago show even trilobites ordered just so, potentially to mate or in response to danger.

Inman said he has seen lines depicted in hieroglyphics in Egyptian pyramids. In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, Beijing designated the 11th of every month “Queuing Day” to encourage order before international visitors arrived.

For America’s current vexation, capitalism has answers.

Valencia, California-based Lavi Industries, a U.S. Homeland Security contractor of post-and-rope systems to about 450 airports, now is outfitting portable stanchions with clear plastic sneeze guards to protect travelers, shoppers, diners and others stuck in switchback lines. Lavi also has boosted what it calls “virtual queuing technology,” or smart-phone programs that summon customers from afar when their turns approach.

“People hate to wait,” said Perry Kuklin, Lavi’s marketing director. “If you make it more pleasant, make it more efficient, you as a business can not only profit from it, but you create a better passenger experience or theater experience.”

Covid Traps Impatient Americans in Endless Lines for Everything

For some, relief can’t come soon enough.

Francisco Salazar, a 31-year-old filmmaker from East Meadow, New York, said he dropped his hometown’s Stew Leonard’s grocery store from his rounds — and forbade his parents from going — when he found “no distancing in those lines.” Costco in Westbury on July 1 was little better, with an hour-long wait to get in and another line to check out.

“Earlier in the pandemic, they were checking people for masks, cleaning the carts, giving sanitizer -- they’re no longer doing any of it,” Salazar said. “I feel paranoid. I don’t want to be on these long lines.”

Costco’s website says it has required face coverings since May 4 and counsels shoppers to maintain social distancing.

Elsewhere, some find a certain meditative peace in the new routine. Dena Abramson Babb, a 46-year-old Methodist ministries director from Torrance, California, found respite at Trader Joe’s after three months of “constant togetherness” with her husband and two teenagers. Waiting outdoors, 6 feet from other shoppers, allowed her to enjoy beautiful weather and relish the uncrowded aisles awaiting her.

“It was time to stop and notice, to look around and watch, to not be on my phone,” she said. “I tried just to be there.”

Covid Traps Impatient Americans in Endless Lines for Everything

Perspective is paramount, according to Richard Larson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and expert on queuing theory. The aggravation is temporary, he said — and in general, U.S. lines have become scarcer and shorter compared with previous generations.

“My parents had to wait in a bank queue line between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and now ATMs are everywhere,” Larson said. “We have umpteen more gas station pumps you can stop at. A lot of traditional pesky queuing is gone.”

It's difficult to quantify how much time Americans spend waiting, and how much that wasted time costs the economy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics studies how citizens use their time down to the minute. Last year, they spent an average 8.11 hours a day working, 3.61 hours watching television and 1.71 hours per day purchasing goods and services. But the agency didn't break out time they spent waiting around to do those things. However long it was, it's longer now.

Still, Larson said, the pandemic has eased the most common waiting game — rush hour, all but eliminated since working at home became widespread in mid-March.

There was no such relief, though, on Tuesday at newly reopened Motor Vehicle Commission offices in New Jersey, where the pandemic is spreading again after subsiding from an April peak. Police turned motorists from at least three overwhelmed locations. At 1 p.m., more than 300 people stood in line at the Trenton office, many with masks, but not following social distancing.

Government services all over the U.S. are stressed. Hard-hit Arizona has reported 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) back-ups of motorists awaiting coronavirus testing. The Florida Association of Public Information Officers on Tuesday tweeted about a four-hour testing wait at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. The testers had to close doors to additional cars before 1:30 p.m.

Covid Traps Impatient Americans in Endless Lines for Everything

Unemployment offices are a trial all their own.

In New Jersey, where they’ve been closed since March 18, jobless people took to showing up outside Governor Phil Murphy’s press conferences, where his staff offered help. They told reporters about frozen screens, thanks to the agency’s 40-plus-year-old system, and telephone hang-ups after waiting on hold for hours, echoing complaints in California, Washington, Idaho and elsewhere.

Officials in Alabama, with 10% unemployment, started an appointment system on July 6 after news outlets showed hundreds of people waiting in lines overnight, some with blankets and tents, at the single help center that could assist them.

Oklahoma, with a 12.6% jobless rate, continues to have hundreds of people waiting at its offices.

“A lot of this is due to the massive defunding that has happened to our public services throughout the years,” said Eaton, the welder from Eufaula who has routinely waited 11 hours a day, two to three days a week. Each time she packed a cooler with ice, water and protein bars, dropped off her 2-year-old son at daycare, drove at least 45 minutes and took her place in a lawn chair amid a heat index of 100 degrees (38 Celsius) or higher in Tahlequah or Sand Springs.

Not once did she make it to the head of the line.

Finally, she got a July 2 in-person appointment in Muskogee, 37 miles from home, just as utility and car payments were due, and with a medicine purchase looming. There she learned that her 20 weekly work hours were too many to qualify for help.

“Sadly, despite hours of effort,” she said, “this matter is still unresolved.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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