MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As we approach a year of life in quarantine, special correspondent and former WCCO senior political reporter Pat Kessler reflects on his last handshake before the pandemic.
It never occurred to me at the time that shaking one person’s hand would be worth documenting a year later.
One year ago today — March 2, 2020 — a deadly pandemic made touching hands dangerous, and this simple act of human greeting would be my last.
I can report my last handshake was with Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who I interviewed before he spoke at a Democratic presidential campaign rally in Minnesota on the night before the Super Tuesday primary.
Thousands of supporters had gathered at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, where Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats warmed up the crowd before Sanders came on stage.
There had been growing unease around the country about a highly-contagious disease called COVID-19, which originated in China and by February was spreading throughout the world.
Public health experts had begun to urge Americans to stop shaking hands in greeting and to fist-bump instead, or even more oddly, to elbow-bump our hellos.
There was little talk yet about face masks or social distancing or quarantines and isolation.
When Sen. Sanders walked into the interview room with his wife Jane, I asked him directly.
“Senator, are you comfortable with shaking hands?”
“Sure,” he replied, stretching out his arm and taking my hand. “How are you?”
Two days before, on Feb. 29, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported the first confirmed COVID-19 death in the United States, and described the possible pandemic as “a rapidly evolving situation.”
That same day at the White House, President Donald Trump downplayed the danger.
“Our country is prepared for any circumstance,” Trump said. “There is no reason to panic.”
But the president had already begun to question in public if the virus was even real, the day before calling it a “hoax” perpetrated against him by Democrats in an election year.
It was the first of many false COVID claims that sowed chaos and confusion among Americans, and which public health experts now say contributed to the unchecked spread of the deadly virus.
Days later, the country was gripped by shock and fear.
Actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson revealed they had contracted the virus, and the NBA announced it was shutting down its season indefinitely.
States invoked emergency powers to shut down schools, business, travel and outdoor activities.
Americans hoarded toilet paper, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.
On March 2, 2020, the night I shook Sanders’ hand, the U.S. death total stood at three.
By March 31: 936 people were dead, as the virus spread quickly.
And a year later, March 1, 2021: the U.S. death toll was a staggering 515,000.
It’s the highest COVID death count in the world, adding up to more Americans dead than in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined.
It is the equivalent of killing all the people in the Minnesota cities of St. Paul, Rochester and Duluth.
To its credit, the former administration worked with pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine by the end of the year, but continued to minimize the danger.
Now, the question: will we ever shake hands again?
One year after the Sanders rally, Roy Wilkins Auditorium is converted into a seven-day-a-week COVID testing site. The vast room where music played and the crowd roared now has lane dividers to efficiently move crowds to test-kit tables, and round decals affixed to the floor to enforce social distancing.
Face masks are required for all who enter, and workers wear gloves.
When I got a COVID test at Roy Wilkins last week, I remarked to a health care nurse about the Sanders rally — right here! on this spot! — just a year ago.
“That was a long time ago,” she said.