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The COVID Trilogy: The One About the Pandemic

You may have heard that 2021 is just another way of saying “2020 won.” While it certainly may feel that way on occasion, it is not true. It cannot be. Because we are still here. But without a doubt, COVID impacted people differently, depending on their occupation, family situation, and place of residence. Because of its uniquely personal effect, we asked different partners from Mississippi, New York, and Spain to share their lives with us and you just a bit. Michael Hewes (Gulfport, MS), with unflagging optimism, looks back to Hurricane Katrina but also forward to the end of the pandemic. David Cohen (New York City) similarly recalls 9/11, and while graphically detailing the ominous changes in the city, also tells of the loud wave of gratitude that swept over the island. And Raquel Lucas (Madrid, Spain) provides us with a distinctively European perspective.

While this is not the usual format or focus of a Pro Te: Solutio article, there are solutions to be seen and lessons to be learned. When we come together and focus on others—be it our clients or our partners (or better, both)—we thrive.

WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA ROLLED INTO MISSISSIPPI

on August 23, 2005, destroying 60,000 houses on the Gulf Coast (mine included), it was one of the most challenging times of my life. I thought it would be the benchmark against which all other natural disasters could—and would—be measured.

I WAS WRONG.

Nearly 15 years later, on March 7, 2020, I was in New York prepping a surgeon for an upcoming deposition. He mentioned that some of his colleagues had been quarantined for two weeks upon return from a CME, and the concept, frankly, didn’t fully make sense. Sure, I had heard of this novel coronavirus (as it was called back then), but “quarantined”? Well, that was ridiculous. By all accounts that weekend, the City certainly hadn’t changed. The streets were still packed, restaurants were overflowing, and snagging a Hamilton ticket remained an exercise in futility, humility, and fiscal irresponsibility. I returned home that Sunday on a full airplane.

Three days later, the world fell apart. Text messages and news updates documented its collapse, each headline harder to comprehend than the last. The WHO declared the disease a global pandemic. Incoming travel from Europe was banned. The NBA suspended its season. The NCAA tournament was cancelled. Disney World closed its gates indefinitely.

The following days felt like a fog. Closer to home, two months of scheduled depositions and trial preparation disappeared from my calendar in the span of twenty-four hours, and as I checked in with my partners, I found a similar sense of disillusionment. We were told not to go into the office, kids were barred from returning to school, our churches were closed, and oddly, there was a run on toilet paper at the grocery stores. The sense of dread gnawing at my gut brought me back to those post-Katrina days, but this time it was different. Katrina came and went. Katrina had an endpoint. Not so here. There was no clean slate in March 2020 from which to begin the rebuilding and recovery. Even as I write this in March 2021, the future remains fuzzy. Sure, paper goods are no longer scarce, people are going outside again, and vaccines are finally starting to become available, but the reality of a return to “normal” remains out of reach. Life will never be quite the way it was.

But it will get better. In the not too distant future, we will return to those days where we can fellowship, laugh, work and thrive together without the deep sense of heaviness and unease that has pervaded our being for far too long now. And if history is any indication, we will not only survive, but we will thrive.

We only need to look back to this time in the early twentieth century, specifically to 1918, where the one-two punch of the Spanish Flu (50 million dead) and World War I (20 million dead) no doubt led to despondence, depression, and a less than positive outlook on any hope of recovery. Add to that the Great Depression (1929-1933) and World War II (1939-1945), and one would likely agree that our ancestors had every reason to throw in the towel and to give up hope on any type of viable future—and on humanity in general.

THEY DIDN’T.

Indeed, if you have been blessed to speak with your grandparents, great-grandparents, or to read any of the memoirs or letters from their earlier years, odds are you did not find doom, gloom or tales of woe and hand-wringing. What you likely discovered was a gleam in the eye, an unwavering faith, stories of optimism and good times, an encompassing love for friends and family, and salt of the earth grit. This philosophy—the determination to not let their future be dictated by the present—is what will drive our recovery as well.

“Polarizing events such as a natural disaster—whether it be a hurricane or a pandemic—tend to bring into focus what really matters.”

Polarizing events such as a natural disaster—whether it be a hurricane or a pandemic—tend to bring into focus what really matters. For me, my friends and family here at Butler Snow helped get me through 2020. They continue to be a light, even to this day.

Three of my law school classmates happen to be my partners, and even though we work in different Butler Snow offices, we frequently check-in like we are next-door neighbors. What was a tight quartet pre-2020 has morphed into a true brotherhood. In 2020, when the skies were dark and the road was unsteady, we scheduled check in calls weekly—some via Zoom (which is now a four-letter word in more ways than one) and some telephonically. I cannot overstate the importance of having an uplifting support group when things got ugly.

It didn’t end there, however. Maybe it was the collective feeling that we were all in the same boat, and maybe it was an understanding that if we all rowed together, the odds of arriving in one piece were better, but I found that friendships and the sense of community in the firm grew beyond my inner circle. From Nashville to New York—and everywhere in between—I found nuggets of compassion, intellect, drive, and optimism from my partners and colleagues that motivated me every day. Much like our ancestors who rose to the occasion when times were tough, I witnessed people day in and day out face the pandemic and come out stronger and brighter than ever before. As fate would have it, the struggles at work were not limited to the collateral damage from the virus. There were other issues. Three of our partners died untimely deaths, unrelated to Covid-19, during this period. Family members passed, including my mother—the sweetest woman to ever walk this earth. There were divorces, and there were difficulties with children feeling isolated at home. There was the uncertainty of firm finances, and the question of how we could maintain our standards in servicing our clients was always at the forefront of our minds. When these events occurred—when things seemed like they would only get worse—that’s when people stepped up and offered a hand, an ear, and—if not a solution—a solid backstop. Perhaps no one group did it better than our firm management.

Years from now, looking back on this, no one will ever say Butler Snow was a rudderless ship. To the contrary, it only took a few days of assessing the situation before our chair, executive committee, general counsel, practice group and administrative leaders jumped into action. Among other responses, expenditures were frozen, and workloads and calendars were reviewed for gaps. Virtual meetings with clients were immediately convened to get an understanding of the best way to service their short- and long-term needs. Unforeseen logistical issues associated with working from home were addressed, and new servers came online, along with additional monitors, printers and support staff. Litigators like myself who were suddenly faced with the potential of a hollow time sheet put together a multi-week live Zoom exercise to train our lawyers on how to become experts in taking and defending document—and issue—heavy remote depositions. Sure, there was more down time than any of us would have liked, but there was always a sense of committed urgency to continuing the quality of work and level of service our clients expected. This happened because our firm leaders got into the foxhole, determined the best course of action, and led from the front lines. Communication with the lawyers and staff was the best it has ever been. Not once did we ever feel like we were in the dark, and not once did we ever feel like anyone’s personal interests outweighed those of the firm and its clients. In response, we, the troops, took the directives, saluted, and drove on with our eyes on the objective.

As a result, today, even though we may not like some of the changes that have naturally come about because of the pandemic, we have adapted. We have accepted seeing our clients on a video screen instead of in person. We have worked through the challenges of long and detailed video depositions. We have embraced and improved upon the opportunities and efficiencies of working online, all the while looking forward to a return to the new normal. Indeed, for the past five months, our internal Advisory Committee has been meeting almost weekly to find the best, most productive way to get back into the office(s) in a manner that balances the safety of our people without sacrificing the firm culture that is so near and dear to who we are.

At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. Culture. It is what defines us here at Butler Snow. It is the thread that runs through what we do, where we have been, and where we are going. In fact, one of Butler Snow’s founding principles sums it up pretty well:

“We will strive to have trust and confidence in one another, and each one of us will strive to be worthy of that trust in confidence.”

So, back to quarantine. What was such an odd word just one year ago is now referenced in some form or fashion on a daily basis. And while the concept is definitely not ideal, if you have to be quarantined there is no better place to be than amongst people you enjoy, people you respect, and people you trust.

I have found that place. I have found those people. For that, I am thankful, indeed.

Here’s to the future. Be good.

I GOT MY VACCINE TODAY

It was administered at the Javits Center, a once thriving mecca of commerce now converted to a mass vaccination site. We are one year to the month after the virus overwhelmed New York City. As soon as the National Guardsman motioned me to the nurse’s station, I eagerly rolled up the right sleeve of my winter turtleneck. Not even the sting of the needle could stop my tears of happiness.

When 9/11 hit New York, I was also here. Who could have believed that hijacked jet airliners would crash into both World Trade Center towers? Who could have imagined that the towers would then collapse, killing more than 2,500 innocent people in moments? 9/11 set the bar for unspeakable pain and tragedy in New York. We thought nothing worse could ever happen in our lifetime.

Here in New York City, the COVID pandemic has toppled that belief. At first, we heard scary reports about the virus from faraway places, such as Wuhan and Italy. We became a little more nervous when a nursing home in Washington State, and then a resident in a northern California town, mysteriously became infected. Next it was a cruise ship named the Diamond Princess. We wondered, could the virus travel 3,000 miles to New York City? Would Lady Liberty unknowingly welcome asymptomatic infected persons into her harbor?

She apparently did. I’ll never forget the day when the lockdown was announced. Schools, offices, restaurants, theaters, galleries, department stores, retail shops, delis, concert halls, gyms, houses of worship, Starbucks, yoga studios—any place where strangers congregate—locked up, lights out, with all of us sheltered in apartments and told not to leave except to find food. The signature street traffic disappeared. Large avenues, normally filled with speeding yellow taxis, busy delivery trucks, packed city buses, and Ubers and Lyfts, became vast lanes of emptiness. Just before the lockdown took effect, I ran to the supermarket to bring home any food I could possibly carry. Back then, no one wore a mask or even had one. Little did I know that shopping that way was high-risk behavior, easily capable of spreading the disease.

And then it got worse, much worse. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers became infected. Hospitals reported being inundated with COVID patients. We nervously watched the dwindling number of open ICU beds. Patients gasped for oxygen on portable ventilators in hallways. A call for help from medical professionals located anywhere went out. I remember texting to a colleague in Mississippi a cell phone photo of the field hospital erected in Central Park to handle the sick and dying. This was unfathomable.

A famous optometrist died from COVID. A musical arranger for Saturday Night Live died from COVID. A friend’s father in a nursing facility died from COVID. I knew them all. Week after week, the constant shriek of ambulance sirens ricocheted off buildings, filling the empty streets, and our minds, with the uncomfortable proximity of the illness and what could happen if our luck ran out.

Silence at night is greatly appreciated in the city that never sleeps, but not when it is the result of the wholesale dismemberment of society. Sometimes I would awake suddenly at 3 a.m., in the silence, gasping for air, fearful of becoming infected by the invisible enemy. In those early, dark days, when the death toll kept mounting, we didn’t know how the virus was transmitted or how the sickened had become infected. Would washing milk cartons and oranges with hot, soapy water protect us? We hoped it would, so we performed this ritual without scientific knowledge guiding our behavior. We just wanted to stay out of the ICU.

As we waited for the science, we tried to maintain our hope. Borrowing an idea from Spain broadcast in a video forwarded by a colleague, I joined fellow New Yorkers in an evening ritual that lasted for months: at 7 p.m., we stopped whatever we were doing, stepped outside and applauded the nurses, doctors, emergency personnel, and hospital workers.

“Precisely one year later, it is nothing short of astounding that I am able to thank nurses and National Guardsmen at a vaccination site for the stinging gift.”

From roofs, balconies and windows, this quiet, quarantined island transformed itself into a raucous cacophony of beautiful sound. It was the only time in my 50+ years in New York City that neighbors who are complete strangers synchronously hollered, clapped, banged pots with spoons, and openly displayed their compassion and love for the truly essential workers among us.

Precisely one year later, it is nothing short of astounding that I am able to thank nurses and National Guardsmen at a vaccination site for the stinging gift. I am grateful to the brilliant scientists who cracked the genetic code of the virus and devised a safe vaccine that quietly stirs the immune system to generate the antibodies we crave. I thank my firm for supporting hundreds of families in this organization during dark times and for shipping from Mississippi to New York City two cannisters of Lysol wipes when we needed them most. And I thank the public health officials, pharmaceutical companies, and delivery services for this vaccine, so that New York City can once again become the noisy, irritating, and exuberant place we all desperately need it to be.

I HAD COVID-19.

My guess is I got infected approximately one year ago. I did not know at the time. I was asymptomatic until one day I completely lost my sense of smell and taste. I was in Madrid and the whole country was on complete lockdown while emergency rooms and ICUs collapsed. Not having any other symptoms, and having three doctors in the family, I decided to self-quarantine. I never got tested. It felt safer to stay put. I could not help but wonder if a milk carton I touched at the supermarket the day before had infected someone who then died of COVID-19? Months later, an antibody rapid test confirmed my suspicion.

A pandemic was something unprecedented for me. I was not around during the Spanish flu in 1918 like David Cohen and Michael Hewes were. In March 2020, lockdown measures were suddenly imposed by the central government in Spain. International travel was suspended, tourism stopped, hotels closed (a few turned into improvised hospitals), cafes and restaurants shut down. The city silent, the streets empty. It had been a while since I had spent this much time in Madrid. Yet, I knew this was not the city I left when I moved to the U.S. It was a suffocating sensation. In the past, my only sources of suffocation had been hugs and kisses from loved ones. And that was gone too.

We had followed the news from China and Italy closely before it was our turn to fight the virus. Knowing what was coming, however, did not alleviate the pain. In fact, it made it worse. Years ago, The Economist published an issue addressing the economic crisis in Spain. I could not help but remember that cover. Except, this time, it was not just Spain, it was the whole world.

If at any time I underestimated the threat, watching the army set up a field hospital at a convention center and seeing the biggest ice-skating rink in Madrid turned into a morgue certainly made me realize the severity of the situation. In March 2020, most of us wondered how many weeks we could tolerate such a situation.

It has been a year now.

Something had to be profoundly wrong when we reached a point in which 300 deaths per day felt like “good news.” Was acceptance our only way to mentally survive the hardest times of the pandemic? For most of us, our only contribution to improving the situation was practicing social distancing and using masks. Certainly, a humbling experience. Especially when you know scientists across the world are working incessantly to develop a vaccine, and healthcare professionals in your town—some in your own family—are risking their lives to save you. We were not essential. They were.

I feel very fortunate to be a member of the Butler Snow team during this pandemic. Working in a field I enjoy and being surrounded by colleagues and experts I value and respect provided me with the kind of stability and sense of belonging that I very much needed in 2020 when everything else was collapsing. Despite the poor fashion choices at various NY Science Team videoconferences, I am extremely grateful for the support system we created to uplift one another and keep up the good work.

Knowing that I will lose my antibodies soon (assuming I still have some), I am very much looking forward to getting vaccinated. However, with or without a vaccine, we should all realize we still have months, if not years, of uncertainty before us. After all, as it happens with the scientific evidence in the litigations we handle, “long-term studies are needed” to fully assess the medical, psychological and economic consequences of this pandemic.

Finis