Staying ahead of the [flattened] curve
The nation emerges slowly from crisis mode, but it won’t yet be business-as-usual.
As society gradually reopens following the lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, things simply won’t be the same for a while. Even as states and municipalities progress through the phases of loosening social restrictions, the possibility of a second infection wave calls for caution. There has been talk of a “new normal” affecting businesses, schools, institutions, and even how we interact with one another.
Two Legates — one a health care executive, the other recently retired from the restaurant business — recently shared their perspectives on the pandemic. Here’s what they had to say about their experiences, their reliance on faith, and how this crisis could change the industries they know best and even society itself.
PRESIDENT AND PATIENT
Michael Maron, a Legate of the Newark Chapter, is president and CEO of Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, NJ, a suburb of the New York metropolitan area. As the novel coronavirus pandemic escalated in the region, he became one of its patients. Infected with the SARS-CoV2 virus, he was diagnosed with COVID-19, the now-familiar disease it causes.
Maron initially dismissed his fatigue as the effects of stress and overwork in the midst of the crisis. Even as his family entered self-quarantine, he planned to work from home through videoconferencing and other technology, figuring he’d be back in a couple of days. “I was wrong,” he said.
Soon his condition worsened, and his wife’s health deteriorated as well.
“I never presented with the early dominant symptoms, fever and respiratory distress,” Maron recalled. “Fatigue, loss of taste, chills, gastrointestinal issues were my main symptoms.” Still, he came to appreciate just how serious the virus was. “My confidence in my Superman DNA gave way to concern and worry that both my wife and I were now that much closer to the possibility of being hospitalized and intubated in an ICU,” he confessed.
Perhaps worst of all, his initial denial gave way to remorse, sadness, worry, and guilt at having brought the virus home with him.
Not surprisingly, he turned to his Catholic faith.
“I prayed often for strength, for the ability to overcome the virus,” he said. “I prayed for wisdom and humility, because I knew my own arrogance caused harm to my family.” He was guided by the words of the prophet Micah: This is what God asks of you: to act justly, to love tenderly, to walk humbly with your God.
Less than two weeks later — after a regimen of hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and hydration — he was back at work, shepherding the Holy Name health system through the continuing pandemic.
Maron underlined the seriousness of COVID-19 by pointing out some of the unprecedented ways hospitals have responded to the influx of critically ill patients: rapid construction of new intensive-care units (ICUs), tapping into strategic stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE), and renting refrigerator trucks to expand morgue capacity. Holy Name itself expanded its ICU from 20 to 120 beds, converting an auditorium for ICU use in just seven days.
“There is a long litany of 100-year ‘firsts’ in health care delivery this crisis created,” he said.
THREAT REQUIRES SACRIFICE
Having firsthand experience both as a patient and as a health care executive in the hardest-hit region of the United States, Maron stresses the seriousness of the pandemic.
“This virus is highly contagious, and this virus is very deadly,” he warned. “Any statistical manipulation to minimize these facts is grossly irresponsible and will lead to more casualties in the years to come. Any public messaging that suggests otherwise and leads to careless behavior is equally irresponsible.”
The only intervention presently available to us to mitigate the spread of this virus is social distancing and isolation, he pointed out.
“We do not know for certain what the contagious period of the virus is, its incubation period, how it is transmitted, what symptoms are most identifying of the presence of the virus,” he explained. “Knowing only that it is transmitted person to person leaves physically separating of people as the only means to slow the spread of the virus.”
We’ve succeeded in “flattening the curve” to take the stress off our health care systems, and “tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved,” Maron said. That’s all due to sacrifice, he added — of leaders making the unpopular decisions to shut down society, of the economy itself, and of individuals who comply with public health recommendations.
While the scientific data will eventually enable us to understand COVID-19 more thoroughly, “the unprecedented circumstances we’re living through might also teach us some profound lessons about ourselves,” Maron said.
“The health care industry will be learning from this crisis for decades to come. Improving our surveillance systems, our response capabilities and our moral and ethical obligation,” he said. “We have demonstrated that we are far more effective when we cooperate rather than compete, when we innovate and accept responsibility to respond and execute in creative ways.”
For humanity in general, the pandemic — which knows no borders and attacks across all races, religion, ethnicities, economic classes, and other lines of division — reminds us of our commonality.
“The irony is that the enforced social distancing keeping us apart has also made us more keenly aware of how inextricably linked we are as a human family,” Maron said. “The process of containing the virus has hopefully opened our eyes to the precious bonds that exist between us and the care and nurturing these relationships need along life’s journey.”
“We are all in this together,” he said.
HEALTHY IN BODY AND FAITH
Longtime restaurateur Joe Micatrotto Sr. resides far from the pandemic’s hotbed states of New York and New Jersey. The Las Vegas Legate said his extended family has not been affected, and he personally knows only one person who has contracted COVID-19.
“We have very few health concerns provided we keep some simple precautions,” he said, adding that “the health professionals ‘on the ground’ have been magnificent.” He praised President Trump’s handling of the crisis but had harsh words for the mainstream media and their priorities. “I wish the media cared for the killing of millions of babies in the womb as much as they do reporting deaths from a virus, which grotesquely pales in comparison,” said Micatrotto.
It’s been a trial from a faith standpoint, accustomed as he is to attending daily Mass, he said. Watching daily Masses online and assisting at his own parish’s livestreamed liturgies has been helpful. On the more positive side, he and his wife, Constance, have “really kicked up” their daily shared prayer in the absence of parish life. “We stay in regular communication with our priests, and spiritual communion is more than once a day!” said Micatrotto. “Prayer life has never required a building. Truly, we are ‘temples of the Holy Spirit.’”
His family’s Micatrotto Restaurant Group sold its portfolio of 40 Raising Canes restaurants back to the chain’s founder months before the COVID-19 crisis erupted, which “may have seemed providential,” he said. But he believes the chain will survive the pandemic.
“While sales are obviously impacted, [customers] have been stacked in line for the drive thru, and not one employee was let go because of the virus,” he said. “Surely, while revenues are down, the goodwill and character of the Raising Canes team has never been greater.”
ADAPT TO SURVIVE
The COVID-19 crisis will change the restaurant business, he explained, but the key lesson — gleaned also from his own long tenure in the restaurant industry — is adaptability.
“Anyone who says they were or are prepared for this pandemic needs to hope the confessional opens fast,” said Micatrotto. Even now, “Everything you write and believe needs ‘whiteout’ because it may change in coming months. Change happens at speeds like the rotation of the earth: we do not see or feel the rapidity of change, so accept it with a mind to adapt.”
Micatrotto, founder of the Buca di Beppo restaurants, offered the example of how he moved his family business from full-service restaurants to the “fast casual” establishments. “Americans wanted great food, but wanted the flexibility to dine with it as they wished,” he said. “Adaptability does not mean you lose your heart or character; rather, you take that which you make or love and put it into a format that allows for many and varied applications.”
To restaurant industry executives and workers struggling through the present crisis, he proposes two general bits of advice: Treat the guest as if he is always right, and focus on service.
“If you do not like being a servant,” he suggested, “get out now, since being in service is who and what we are in this business.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine editorial consultant.
LOVE IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC
John D. Rockefeller Jr. wrote as part of the Rockefeller Creed:
“I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.”
I have no doubt the power of the human soul has been set free from the fires of sacrifice that have burned so large and so bright over the last several months. It is one of my hopes coming out of this crisis that the prevalence of selfish, egocentric, and narcissistic behavior that has become the norm in our modern world will start to yield to the love of neighbor, humility, and altruistic character that better defines who God intended us to be.
If there’s an unearned blessing in this tragedy, it is the opportunity to better understand not only our physical similarities but our true heritage as living souls. We are spiritual beings — equally valued by a loving Creator — and here to fulfill a sacred purpose on earth.
— Michael Maron