In the days and weeks leading up to March 11, 2020, Americans could be excused for underestimating the coronavirus.
The U.S. had faced a variety of infectious diseases in recent decades — SARS, MERS, avian flu, Zika, Ebola and others — and it was unclear how this new coronavirus would be notably different. Some parts of the U.S. had taken action as the initial outbreak in Italy offered a window into just how bad things could get.
But any doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic was about to shatter daily life ended on March 11. What had been a steadily building crisis exploded in a handful of hours.
NBC News spoke with six people about their memories of that day, the decisions they made, the feelings they had and the last moments of their lives before the pandemic put the U.S. and the world on an entirely new track. They are San Francisco Mayor London Breed; Deputy NBA Commissioner Mark Tatum; Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s chief human resources officer; Anita Dunn, then a senior adviser to Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign; Joe Grogan, then the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council; and Dr. Vin Gupta, a Seattle-based pulmonologist who saw some of the first U.S. Covid-19 patients.
The interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Before March 11
The coronavirus had come to the U.S., but beyond that, little was known about it. A drumbeat of developments starting in January turned into a stream of daily updates in February and early March. But warnings about « community spread » had begun to hint that authorities did not have a lid on the virus.
London Breed, San Francisco mayor: Even before March 11, once talk had circulated about the virus and all of the stuff happening, we had been feeling the impacts of the way that people stopped eating at Chinese restaurants and stopped going to Chinatown. Conventions were canceled. Things were already moving in a particular direction, but there was so much uncertainty.
Joe Grogan, director of the Trump White House Domestic Policy Council: The tempo of everything was really increasing. The travel shutdown or the travel ban from Europe had been raised before, but there were a lot of communications among [White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator] Debbie Birx and [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony] Fauci and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert] Redfield over that weekend. … Debbie was really working on getting data from European countries, because we didn’t really have data that we felt tremendously confident in from the Asian countries, as far as is it safe to extrapolate from Asian countries with different practice of medicine issues and different cultural issues. But she was gathering more data and realizing how it was spreading in Europe at such a rapid clip. There was still some resistance from skeptics, but it was about shutting down, that it was such a momentous decision to shut down travel from Europe, it would have cataclysmic economic ramifications.
Anita Dunn, senior Biden campaign adviser, based in Philadelphia: It was the best week of the campaign. It was big crowds, huge enthusiasm, money coming in from small donors, everything you want out of a presidential campaign. On a parallel track that week, we were growing more and more concerned about Covid. We added hand sanitizers to our events so that everybody could sanitize their hands. On March 8, in Mississippi, we made the decision to stop having Biden work the rope line after his speeches.
Mark Tatum, deputy NBA commissioner, based in central New Jersey: We had been focused on this virus for two months prior to that because of our presence in China. The CEO of NBA China is a direct report of mine. And so in early January, I remember talking to our CEO, and he was following what was happening in Wuhan. It had started to spread throughout China. On Jan. 23, we actually closed our offices in China: in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. We have almost 200 employees there, and so we’d been tracking it since January.
Dr. Vin Gupta, NBC News medical contributor and critical care pulmonologist, based in Seattle: I think at that end of February, early March, we at that point knew that Covid was in our community in Seattle, that we were the initial epicenter. And there was a lot of fear about what this meant. … Within a span of a week, that first week of March 2020, downtown Seattle went from buzzing on a Monday to completely down on a Friday.
Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s chief human resources officer, then based in San Francisco: We made the decision [to send people home] the day before. … We had already had a couple of situations between March 2 and March 10 of offices where we had someone test positive for Covid, so we had to do a shutdown and clean and all that. We just said, you know, this is not really manageable, and there’s too many unknown risks. Let’s just go forward and announce tomorrow that it’ll be a full mandate working from home.
The morning of March 11
By the morning of March 11, the pandemic had put much of the nation on edge even if daily life continued. U.S. stocks dropped sharply on March 9. The day before, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had set up a « containment area » around the New York City suburb of New Rochelle because more than 100 cases had been found. The night before, Joe Biden surged ahead of Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, winning primaries in four states.
Grogan: It was around 10 or 11 a.m. that there was a meeting in the Roosevelt Room, and that went on for a while. That was not a short meeting; there were people coming in and out. The vice president was in there, [national security adviser] Robert O’Brien, Jared [Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser], Hope Hicks [counselor to the president], [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, Chad Wolf [the acting secretary of homeland security], who hadn’t been in any of these meetings before. … I found out from a reporter about the meeting, and I went in there … and then at one point there was discussion about when do we go with the [Oval Office] speech. And I remember saying, « Look, we have to go tonight, because it’s going to leak. » And somebody pushed back. I said, « Listen, man, I found out about this meeting from a reporter. »
Dunn: On the morning scheduling call we all agreed that we needed to turn our events into virtual events for the next several days. … I went into the office, and everyone there was exhilarated from the fact that we had, in effect, locked up the nomination. But at the same time, there was this huge sense of, just, confusion about what was going to happen next, as I told people, with the pulling-down events and that we were replacing them with virtual. And we had decisions that needed to be made. We had people who had been working in the primary states. What do we do with these people?
Gupta: At that point, there was a sense of, well, you know, maybe this is going to be a short-term thing. I remember we left, my wife, who is a pediatrician, myself, we had a planned vacation with pediatrician friends. … We flew in on March 7 and we were intending to spend a short family vacation and recharge, and then I was back in the ICU the week after.
Tatum: So that morning, I remember, we kind of had other meetings, but this was very much at the top of all of our minds, because we had a board meeting scheduled that afternoon. … We were all watching live on TV this congressional hearing where the Ivy League had just made the decision to cancel its conference tournament, and Dr. Fauci was asked in that hearing is the NBA underreacting or is the Ivy League overreacting. We all watched as Fauci said, « Well, we’d recommend that there not be large crowds. If that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, then so be it. » About an hour later, the World Health Organization director general declared Covid-19 a pandemic. … At 2 o’clock [ET] is when the Warriors announced, in consultation with us, that their game that next night on Thursday that was scheduled in San Francisco would have to be played without fans. So this was, in a three-hour period, it felt like the world was falling apart.
Christie: There were a lot more questions than there were answers. There was conflicting guidance about wearing masks. There wasn’t really any testing capability, so anyone who was experiencing symptoms, unless they were dire and needed hospitalization, people were being told just assume you have it and stay home, but people weren’t getting confirmations. There were just so many unknowns.
Midday: WHO first calls the outbreak a pandemic
At a media briefing around midday on the East Coast, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, says the coronavirus outbreak can be « characterized as a pandemic. » About an hour later, Breed announces a ban on gatherings of over 1,000 people.
Breed: This is a major city. I was just very concerned that by giving people the ability to still gather, we’re implying that we don’t have a problem. So we either need to move into a more drastic direction or we need to back off. Which is it? I met with Rick Welts from the Warriors. They wanted to move forward [with still having fans at games], and unfortunately, of course, I had to decline the request. It was very hard to look him in the eye and say no. We had to have a conversation about that. I had to say, « No, I can’t just let you have one more. »
Dunn: We had not had a confirmed case of Covid in the city of Philadelphia at that point… We had a typical campaign headquarters. It was a huge open space. People were sitting literally elbow to elbow. You know, we had about 300 people jammed in this open-air space sitting elbow to elbow. And Dana [Remus, general counsel of the Biden campaign] and Margie [Ryder, chief operating officer of the Biden campaign] came to me to say that doctors and the Public Health Advisory Committee were advising us to shut our headquarters and send everybody home. … What the doctors said to us was very, very straightforward. They said: « No, no, it’s not that you don’t have any cases in Philadelphia. You just don’t have any tests. » We made the decision that we were going to close the headquarters the following Monday.
Grogan: There was a big meeting that day in the Roosevelt Room and a few hours later in the Oval Office. The president was deciding that we had to shut down travel from Europe. It was not unanimous by everyone in the room. Some people were raising economic concerns, and he [Trump] said: « Look, we’ll make the money back, but we’ll never be able to get these lives back. We have to shut down travel. It’s a go. »… He let everybody have their say. We were worried about things leaking out of that meeting, so it was determined that we had to have the president give an address that night. … It was the most sober I think I ever saw [Trump].
Gupta: It’s like something out of some « Armageddon » movie, but it was getting in line to get basic staples, make sure we had canned food. I mean, literally, that was the experience in those initial weeks, and it was made even worse by the fact that we were out of the country, literally on the day that pandemic was declared, and it just made it, just, heightened anxiety for, I think, everybody in health care.
Tom Hanks, the NBA and a presidential address
Coronavirus news had been building throughout the days and weeks, but nothing like what would happen in a few hours on the evening of March 11. Tom Hanks would announce that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the virus; an NBA game minutes from tipoff would be canceled and the season suspended; and President Donald Trump would address the nation and announce a ban on foreign travelers from Europe. Last, Twitter would announce that it was closing its offices around the world.
Dunn: When the Tom Hanks thing broke, that brought it home to people in the headquarters. If Tom Hanks can get this illness, then probably just about anybody can. … The news that Tom Hanks had it was such a significant piece of bringing it home to the personal, because people feel such a personal connection to Tom Hanks. I sat in the communications and press department. We had a wall of televisions, and every television had the breaking news story about Tom Hanks on it. And it was a moment where everyone was looking at each other like « wow. »
Tatum: Up until that point, you read the news stories, you saw the cases, you saw people dying, getting sick, but then when someone like Tom Hanks gets it, you’re like, OK, this is real, this is someone we all know. That was a little bit of a wake-up call for everybody that you needed to pay attention to this thing.
Christie: The gravity of telling everybody that they had to work from home for the foreseeable future — not knowing what that end would be — I felt it myself. We didn’t make that decision lightly. I know there was a lot of back and forth [among company executives], as there always is, on [the remote work announcement]. We’re all on a Google Doc, changing and wordsmithing. People were editing, and then somebody would be editing on top of that. Really trying to work in real time as much as we could and get things going. … This was really almost an overnight flip of the switch — globally, too, which was huge. But I will tell you, it was probably as seamless as it could be, because people understood the why. The why was we want you to be safe.
Tatum: We got the call somewhere near 7:45 from Oklahoma City confirming that [Utah Jazz player] Rudy Gobert had a positive test. That sparked a series of conversations internally between [NBA Commissioner] Adam [Silver], me, our general counsel, the Thunder, the Jazz, and we very quickly came to the conclusion … we needed to pause the season right away. We also got on the phone with the owner of the Kings, who were playing the New Orleans Pelicans [that night], at that point, too, and we decided to cancel that game. And so I remember that moment very vividly when we got the phone call and we started putting the wheels in motion to get in touch with all the key people and get the release out. There was a flurry of a draft release by our communications group that was being sent around to a bunch of us in the senior leadership team in a rush to get that out there as quickly as we could. It was a very hectic couple of hours.
Gupta: I’m a huge NBA fan, so I saw that. It was the culmination of a week in which you had seen corporate America shut down, major U.S. cities kind of come to the recognition that this is going to be disruptive for a very long time. And then, once you saw professional sports teams that are well, well resourced basically shut it down … in some ways Amazon and Microsoft going remote doesn’t feel that strange, but the NBA shutting down felt like « Wow, we are in uncharted territory. »
Breed: People’s weddings were canceled. People were asking me about whether or not they should fly. People were not really happy about the symphony. Folks were not very happy about the Warriors. At the time, most people felt that it would not last as long as it did.
Grogan: The president ultimately made the decision [to halt travel from Europe] and then he gave the address, which was put together hastily, because we were afraid that it was such a big decision that it was going to leak. … It’s a shame that we didn’t have more time. If we’d had until the morning or 24 hours, I think, the speech could have done a little bit more. But we felt like we had to go, because there was no way it wouldn’t have leaked.
Tatum: I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night; it was probably about 3 o’clock in the morning. [That night was spent] just on the phone internally, starting to prep for the next day. … It was very much « let’s get ready for tomorrow, because we know it’s going to be a lot of inbound. » There’s going to be a lot of questions, and we’re not going to have a lot of answers, but we’re at least going to engage with our key constituents and partners and stakeholders on this.
Gupta: It was hard to not look at the headlines and be extremely scared and feeling like we shouldn’t have come in the first place and, you know, will we be let out of the country and all these things. And so I just remember these conversations really vividly, always focused on « should we go back? » And then ultimately pulling the trigger to end the trip early to go back.
Grogan: There were people working late that night, and in the aftermath of it I was on the phone a lot and email trying to clear up some concerns because of the wording in the speech, and it wasn’t clear about whether or not cargo was going to be allowed back into the United States. … That day, it was like the resignation of how serious the epidemic was. It was also a resignation that I had built all these policies to be going out, and they were all getting swamped by Covid, and many of them wouldn’t get done before I left the White House.
Christie: I had never experienced anything that was this all-encompassing. Usually if you have a crisis in your organization, it might be team-related. You may have one geography or one office location that’s experiencing something, but something that was impacting every single employee across a global organization in the same way was just a very new thing. … When I came home, I just remember telling my husband: « This is going to be one of those times where I’m going to be on my phone all the time. We might watch something and I might try to take a break, but I am going to be checking my phone the whole time, so let’s just set a new normal now for the foreseeable future. » He got it.
Gupta: It went from cautious vigilance when we left to we don’t know how this is going to play out to March 11, like, literally moving flights to get back in the country. That’s what March 11 was like when the pandemic was declared. There’s emails, hysterical emails, flying back and forth about « is there going to be enough support to help various health care systems? » … People try to figure out schedules, making sure that there was backup. I mean, there’s chaos and, just, people feeling, I mean, literally, like, there was a doomsday feeling.
Dunn: At that point, at the end of that day, it felt like a piece of fiction, almost. You know, where suddenly things happen so quickly and you go from waking up feeling kind of normal, and by the end of the day, everything has changed.