In sci-fi movies, it usually takes an hour and fifteen minutes for the loony but brilliant scientist to look up from the microscope, shout “Aha!,” and announce the breakthrough that will save the human race. In real life, after six months of feverish activity by practically every PhD on the planet, the mystery just keeps deepening. We have managed to figure out a few things, among them that our best lines of defense are (stop me if you’ve heard this already) hand washing, face covering, and social distancing. The first two are simple enough. Social distancing, however, gets more complicated every day.
“As the pandemic presses on and restrictions ease, I’ve been conflicted about what social events to attend, if any,” Jenna Jonaitis wrote in the Washington Post this week. “Denying my parents opportunities to see my son, let alone hug and kiss him, weighs on my heart, and there’s an emptiness in not seeing my sister and her kids. But because so many questions about the virus persist, my family, like many other Americans, is trying to figure out how to socialize going forward.”
I hear you, Jenna. Now that I’m in California and out of quarantine, I’m getting invited out by my nearest and dearest, and while my heart rejoices, my nerve endings are fraying with anxiety. Am I ready to share a table with pals at a restaurant, even outdoors with tables six feet from other diners? Frankly, I break out in a cold sweat just thinking of removing my face shield and sitting bare faced, nose to nose, over a leisurely meal. Maybe it’s just me. My protection parameters were forged in Spain, which had the strictest lockdown in Europe. Are my standards unrealistic? Prudent? The bare minimum to ensure survival?
Who knows? And that’s my whole point.
I understand why others feel it’s safe to socialize more intimately. Here in Marin County, cases have plummeted to nearly nothing. My friends probably are virus-free; a few even have test results to prove it. And I’m feeling pretty good myself. But there’s no guarantee one or another of us won’t pick up the coronavirus five minutes from now, due to someone sneezing all over Starbucks or chatting at a neighborhood barbecue, especially with the influx of summer visitors from all over.
I’ve been asking around, and almost nobody here knows anyone with coronavirus, so I suspect the danger may not seem quite real. For me, it’s only too vivid. One friend in her forties has been battling a particularly vicious case for nearly three months, getting briefly better only to suffer yet another, even more hideous relapse. It’s the stuff of nightmares — and a powerful incentive to be very, very careful not to risk getting it.
Unfortunately, it’s not always clear just how to avoid that risk. Information about COVID-19 remains so sketchy that we all have to devise homemade defense plans. I have friends who have been housebound in near-total isolation since mid-March. Others are constantly out and about, sporadically wearing masks. They invite me over, assuring me their bodies and homes are germ free, even as they mention that the grandkids are visiting from another state, and no, they didn’t quarantine before arrival; for heaven’s sake, they’re family.
Staying completely apart is obviously safest but carries a tremendous emotional burden. People I know living in residential care are totally isolated and starved for human contact. A friend visiting her 97-year-old mother last week discovered there was now a “hugging machine,” a plastic barrier equipped with two pairs of shoulder-length gloves, allowing them to reach through the barrier and wrap their arms around one another. As they kissed through the plastic, her mother began to cry for joy.
So what is the right balance of socializing and safety? My anecdotal, unscientific research led me to The California Happy Hour. “Each person brings their own wine and snacks,” my sister Kate explained, “and we all sit far apart and talk for an hour or so. At first it felt weird not to offer guests a meal or even drinks, but it’s not about food, it’s about fellowship.”
The California Happy Hour
After due deliberation, Rich and I have adopted this plan. If people think I’m silly for insisting on it, they've been too kind to say anything. So that’s family and friends sorted. Getting the larger world to honor my boundaries is trickier. Especially now, when I’m participating in peaceful protests over the killing of George Floyd and others.
Last Thursday I joined 1000 neighbors at a busy intersection during rush hour; protesters waved signs, cars honked in solidarity. The crowd, mostly young people, wore masks and often stood close together. Rich and I wore both face shields and masks, letting folks know we were A) a bit odd, and B) serious about distancing; people gave us a wide berth, and we had no trouble maintaining our distance. We all knelt for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the amount of time Officer Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. It felt like a very long time indeed.
On Sunday Rich and I joined a protest in which cars, decorated with posters, drove through our town and several others. Approaching the starting point, the long lineup of cars looked like the final scene in Field of Dreams. Once underway, we were cheered on by bystanders waving their own Black Lives Matter posters. Passing a young family out for a bike ride, I heard the dad saying, “You see, there was this man named George Floyd…” And I remembered my parents saying to me when I was a kid, “You see, there was this woman named Rosa Parks…” And I thought: some of these young people will remember this moment their whole lives.
There’s no perfect formula for keeping safe while staying engaged. We cherish our sense of belonging but don’t want to sacrifice our health, possibly our lives, by getting careless now. Speaking to another generation in challenging times, Churchill said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” That’s about where we are today. The first wave of the pandemic has changed our world forever. And it’s far from over. Coronavirus cases have jumped sharply since Memorial Day in many states, including California. And we've all heard the warnings of a possible resurgence in the fall.
Obviously I’m hoping one day soon some loony, brilliant scientist will shout “Eureka!” and start victory-dancing around the lab in celebration of finding a cure. But for now, defining the future is up to us. So we have to ask ourselves: What kind of people — what kind of a country — do we want to be?
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6/11/2020 06:23:13 pm
Great post! We, like you, are trying to figure out the right balance and finding it difficult with the constantly changing and conflicting information. So far, that has meant going out for a daily walk (where we do our absolute best to stay 6 feet away from everyone and get extremely frustrated at how few people seem to care about social distancing) and one short visit to my parents with no touching, no going inside (which meant no breakfast before our visit so we didn't have to use the bathroom), and staying 6 feet apart. We get the vast bulk of our groceries via curbside pick-up and try not to interact with anyone in person. Is it hard? Yes. Does it feel like the right thing for us? Yes. Would we do the California happy hour if we lived near our friends? Probably. We are hoping that by the 4th of July we should have a better idea of how safe being outdoors is, as cases from the protests should ramp up by then if they are going to ramp up. Stay safe!
6/12/2020 08:20:04 pm
Sounds like you two are making some good, responsible choices, Lisa and Robert. I had to laugh when I got to the part about not eating breakfast; the issue of bathrooms looms large in my life, and I, too, skip meals and avoid drinking coffee to make sure I stay comfortable for longer when I'm out in the world. Yes, I'm worried about the numbers ramping up from the protests, from official political rallies, from churches, and from holiday, and all these visits to restaurants. Like you two, I feel socializing is an unacceptable risk at this point. Stay safe, and good luck out there!
6/11/2020 08:15:44 pm
We need to repeat all this I nformation over and over even though we know it inside out. When I see my neighbors and we begin talking, visiting, etc, I am finding myself too close to them at times and they too close to me, so easy to forget when conversation starts and we all get animated! People in SW Louisiana are very friendly and touchy, touchy, feely, feely people so easy to forget oneself and reach out to touch someone.
6/13/2020 02:00:00 am
It is SO easy to forget, Faye, and I find myself getting too relaxed at times, even in shops or casual encounters on the street corner. There's still a sense of confusion and muddle over what's really necessary, even though study after study shows that face coverings save lives. And we all wish so desperately for normality, even though we know it's gone forever. On the plus side, my friend seems to be doing a bit better, so we're all hoping she's turned the corner at last.
6/11/2020 08:20:03 pm
We've been doing the California Happy Hour option, although it's a challenge in rainy Oregon. We'll have a stretch of nice whether and then a long stretch of cold, wet weather. Not exactly optimal for outdoor get togethers, but we try to do what we can when the sun is out.
6/13/2020 02:09:26 am
Shéa, you are wise to take this seriously. We all want to do normal stuff with our friends, but personally, I believe the risk is still too great to eat sitting face to face with anyone outside your home circle, or to spend hours with strangers in an enclosed environment like a movie theater. It's comforting that Oregon's numbers are good, but with a steady stream of people coming to the West Coast from around the world, there are bound to be germs passing around. I think it's a smart move to keep up those Happy Hours on the fine days, and stay home on the wet ones.
6/12/2020 02:44:25 am
I love your post, Karen. However, it makes me sad to think that still parents have to explain about all the Rosa Parks, and George Floyds that this country have had.
6/13/2020 02:12:48 am
It is very sad, Pia. I can hardly believe that I'm still protesting racial discrimination just as I did when my parents took me to marches and picket lines in the early sixties. I'm excited about the energy of the young kids out protesting now. Here's hoping we make some real progress this time around.
6/13/2020 01:28:30 pm
It is an interesting time to be sure. Greece opens on Monday and we are all in a wait and see mode although the COVID scientist and doctors have started meeting again and daily announcements (ended two weeks ago) have started up. A one-day spike in numbers was a wake up and the government is now looking at local and regional lockdowns as required when and if numbers start spiking again. We have started meeting friends in our area for dinner but I am afraid there is nothing on earth that would get me to participate in a large group protest right now even with a face mask and shield. Continue to be vigilant and stay safe. Enjoyed this post!! xx
6/15/2020 05:00:40 pm
Good luck with the re-opening, Jackie! I read that Greece moved up the opening by two weeks in an effort to attract tourists. Understandable, from a financial standpoint, but tricky from a safety perspective. The Greek prime minster said, "The tourism experience this summer may be slightly different from what you've had in previous years." No kidding! I'm sure it will be different in a thousand ways. Hard to walk the fine line between welcoming people and making sure you're not opening the door to a resurgence in the pandemic. Glad it's not my job to figure out how to do that! Here's hoping it all goes smoothly and most especially that you and Joel stay safe.
6/13/2020 07:41:52 pm
As things change the uncertain feelings seem to stay the same. What should I do or not do? Harvey and Lyle have worked in other cities the whole time. I am not going see people until I feel they will be safe. Yesterday, I had to bring in my car in and go to the doctor unexpectedly. I haven't done that since March 9th. Now open the Bodega coast is our safe h(e)aven. Welcome back to the insanity here. I miss you writing from Sevilla. Any recipes for here? Airhugs
6/15/2020 05:07:31 pm
Recipes? You bet. Thanks for the question, Kitty. Because of all the things I think about in the day, food is one thing that's always comforting and creative. And I know you love experimenting as much as I do. Here's my latest favorite recipe: One Pan Roasted Salmon, Sweet Potatoes, and Asparagus. The lemon-dijon sauce is a treat! You can find it here: https://www.slenderkitchen.com/recipe/one-pan-roasted-salmon-sweet-potatoes-and-asparagus
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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