IN THE END, as history will record, the story that would have been the biggest news on Wednesday, March 11—the story that in normal times might have been the biggest headline of the month—will hardly register in America’s memory: That morning, at 11:06 am, a judge sentenced Hollywood super-producer turned super-predator Harvey Weinstein to 23 years in prison on sexual assault charges.
Yet within 12 hours, the staggering fact that Weinstein—the force behind an entire generation of movie classics from Shakespeare in Love to Pulp Fiction—might very well spend the rest of his life in prison turned out not only not to be the biggest story of the day, it wasn’t even the biggest Hollywood story of the day.
Instead, Wednesday, March 11, the 71st day of 2020, proved to be unlike any other in American history—the pivot point on which weeks of winter unease about the looming novel coronavirus turned in a matter of hours into a sudden, wrenching, nation-altering halt to daily life and routine. Just a day earlier, Americans across much of the country were still going into the office, meeting friends for drinks, and shaking hands in meetings. That morning, the number of coronavirus cases in the US crossed the 1,000 mark, up 10-fold from the prior week. Only 29 Americans had died.
But on that Wednesday, the World Health Organization, which had only begun referring to the virus as Covid-19 a month earlier, declared the disease a global pandemic. Every hour seemed to bring major new developments: On Wall Street, after days of huge up-and-down gyrations, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1,465 points and officially entered bear territory; Capitol Hill faced its first confirmed Covid-19 case; the NCAA announced it would play its basketball tournament without fans; and then, in rapid-fire succession that evening, President Trump gave an Oval Office address, announcing a travel ban from Europe, the NBA suspended its season after player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, and Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita, posted on Instagram that they too had been diagnosed while in Australia and were recuperating.
By Thursday, the national landscape had been undeniably altered, and Americans were panic-buying toilet paper. A whole new vocabulary—WFH, PPE, flattening the curve, social distancing, self-isolation, Zoom-bombing, and quarantines—loomed ahead. Epochal events that had occurred just weeks earlier, from the Australian wildfires to President Trump’s impeachment trial to the drama of the Democratic primary, would seem instead to have occurred years ago.
Within a month, thousands would be killed by the virus, as hospitals from New York to Detroit to New Orleans were overwhelmed, and more than 100,000 had been sickened. The economy would slide into a virus-induced coma, and some 17.7 million Americans would lose their jobs over the next month—a number larger than the populations of all but four states. Not even Harvey Weinstein would escape the drama: He tested positive for the virus on March 23.