On The Seattle Menu: Plague Mentality


Image: Pixabay

Today, I just finished a late breakfast with my daughter at the Portage Bay Café on Roosevelt. The place was packed and noisy as hell. Driving home, I happened to pass by the Starbucks on Mercer and looked inside. The place was packed.

You know what’s happening, don’t you? Many of the employees at Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and so on, who’ve been told or encouraged to work from home, what with the coronavirus still ablaze and all the rage, are flocking to coffee shops and the like, laptops in hand. They are sneering at the virus, daring it with dark humor to come near, though dutifully and rigorously and vigorously washing their hands – and with soap, by golly!

My daughter’s roommates are also at home today, presumably working, but tonight they all have plans to hit a wine bar near their rental home in Green Lake. And yet, two of her college chums from Sacramento – they all graduated three years ago from the University of Oregon – canceled plans to fly up to Seattle this weekend.

Before the late breakfast, I got a haircut at The Shop on upper Queen Anne. The woman who cut my hair volunteered that she and her boyfriend had an early dinner the night before at Wild Ginger. “It was wonderful,” she gushed. “Hardly anyone in the place and the streets, well, it was like downtown used to be. It was great! No traffic at all.”

Still, soon, if not already, the novelty of sealing themselves in their houses and apartments (at least by day), while the virus continues on its inexplicable path, will wear thin.

Lance Morrow, one of the nation’s most elegant essayists, who honed his craft in Time magazine, came out in 2006 with a compilation of some of his most thoughtful and insightful pieces. The book, recently re-released, is titled “Second Drafts of History.” One of the essays, published in Time on September 23, 1985 (Between 1981 and 1985, some 6,000 people died of AIDS in the United States.) is called “The Plague Mentality.”

In it, Morrow wrote: “The plague mentality is something like the siege mentality, only more paranoid. In a siege, the enemy waits outside the walls. In a plague or an epidemic, he lives intimately within. “Death drifts through human blood or saliva. It commutes by bug bite or kiss or who knows what. It travels in mysterious ways, and everything, everyone, becomes suspect: a toilet seat, a child’s cut, an act of love. Life slips into science fiction.”

It seems to me, having just gotten my daily fill of coronavirus coverage on CNN and MSNBC, that we are moving rapidly into the strange realm of plague mentality, which often results from ignorance and fear.

As Morrow put it, “When medicine is ignorant about a lethal disease, then the only intelligent approach, by mothers or anyone else, is to be fearful and intensely cautious. “But, like a plague itself, a plague mentality seems an anachronism in elaborately doctored postindustrial America.” So, tonight, it’s off to a wine bar for my daughter and her roomies. Have a great time – and make sure to wash your hands. With soap!

Ellis Conklin
Ellis Conklin
Ellis Conklin spent decades as newspaper man, mainly in Los Angeles, Seattle and St. Louis, having worked at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, United Press International as a national feature writer, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At long last, he and his wife settled in Manzanita, Oregon. Here, Ellis continues to root for his beloved San Francisco Giants.


  1. I would agree that a plague mentality, which I think is a good thing right now, is the result of realistic fear. But the non-plague mentality, such as you observed today, is a result of ignorance. The employees of the tech companies are mostly young. They know if they get COVID19, it will most likely be mild. Why not go out to crowded venues and have a good time? But the thing is, if they are infected, they may well be passing it on to the 1 to 3% of the infected that will die. A Harvard epidemiologist predicted 40 to 70 percent of the world population could up infected. Hopefully, he will be wrong. But what if he is right? Let’s say that 50% of those in the USA got infected, and out of that 1% died. That is 1.6 Million people! I think it is worth doing our part to slow down the spread if we can. The rest of the country is looking at us now; I hope we come together for the common good and sacrifice our social lives for a little while.


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