Rich loves swimming and normally does laps several times a week. Years ago in the locker room of his Cleveland gym, he noticed a man heading toward the pool — stark naked.
“Excuse me,” Rich said politely. “There’s a rule you need to wear a suit in this pool.” The man shot him a “Well, duh” look. Rich tried again. “I think they’re pretty serious about it.” The man just stared at him. Finally Rich pointed to the fellow’s nether regions. “You might want to think about that.” The guy glanced down, then did a horrified double take. “Oh, my God. Thanks!!” He dashed back to his locker to don his swim suit.
As you’ve no doubt heard, this is precisely what’s NOT happening nowadays when people are reminded that they are required to wear face masks in public.
Although face covering is mandated by law in many states, including here in California, trying to get Americans to cover up in stores, let alone on the street, can lead to confrontations in which people throw insults, racial epithets, glasses of water, even punches. As one Minnesota woman put it, “I never in a million years would have thought that working in a grocery store would have been considered a high-risk job.”
Has America completely lost its mind? The jury is still out on that one. But in Zoom call after Zoom call, I’m having a tough time trying to explain all this to friends in other countries.
“Did they somehow miss the news there’s a pandemic?” ask my amigos. “Are they unaware that face masks can save their lives? Their grandmothers? Perhaps thousands of others? How is that not worth the effort?”
I explain that with America balked of its traditional sports, COVID-19 has become the latest political football, another hard-fought scrimmage in our endless culture war.
A culture war is about symbolic thinking: a mask isn't just a mask, it defines your loyalty to a social group. Politicians gain power by making us believe that every issue comes down to us against them, with our entire way of life at stake. By reframing the pandemic as a hoax designed to rob you of something precious, they stir up emotions they hope will carry people to the election booth in November.
I believe that underneath all the bluster, the COVID-19 deniers are desperately afraid. At this point, with three million reported cases in the US, on some level the anti-maskers have to know they've placed themselves at high risk by refusing to protect themselves. They've backed themselves into a corner, and fear is making them lash out.
Big chain stores have become a battleground. In a group Zoom call on Monday, my friends Marlene and Lonnie told of going into a Long Island Lowe’s, where they noticed the clerk serving them had a face mask down around her chin. Thinking this was simply an oversight, Marlene suggested to the clerk she might want to pull the mask up. The clerk became incensed, repeating hotly, “My body, my face!” Being civilized people, Marlene and Lonnie didn’t resort to screaming or violence; they left the store and filed complaints. “Management said all the right things,” Marlene said, sounding doubtful that anything would be done.
At this point in the conversation, our friend Julie mentioned that he'd been aghast to learn of a massive July 4th beach party taking place not far from his home on Fire Island, New York. Hundreds gathered without masks or social distancing. Julie, who is a paramedic, said he’d like to tell the revelers, “If you think a mask is uncomfortable, you’re really going to hate the ventilator.”
Eventually postings on social media tipped off the Fire Island police, who broke up the party. But most often it’s left up to individuals to figure out how to act responsibly. As co-owner of Antique Sugar, a vintage clothing store In Phoenix, Arizona, Sarah Bingham asked customers to wear face protection and gave masks to anyone who needed one. Most cheerfully complied, but some turned hostile. “They wanted to argue about it and just tell me it didn't work, or that it was stupid," she said.
Eventually she posted this sign.
As you can imagine, she got a some angry messages and threats. But she also received a flood of voice mails from grandmothers all over the world who wanted to thank her for defending them. Reddit praised her for “telling it like it is.” Due to all the fuss, she now posts a security guard at the door. And she continues to make sure her staff and customers wear protection. “If I get it at work and end up passing it to somebody that can't recover, that's the most awful thing in the world, and we need to be thinking about other people, not ourselves," she said.
For many of us, it's scary to think of being unprotected in any public place, and that goes double for hospitals. Ten days ago, my brother Mike, visited an emergency room in Seville, Spain after a spectacular fall off his bicycle.
Nearly home after a long ride, as he passed Seville's Plaza de Armas bus station, he hit a bump, flew over the handlebars, landed hard, and briefly lost consciousness. Yes, he was wearing a helmet, which is why he’s alive today. A couple of passing strangers stopped, helped him to the side of the road, collected his gear, locked up his bike, phoned his wife, called an ambulance, and waited with him until the paramedics arrived.
Rushing into the hospital’s crowded waiting room, Deb found Mike sitting in a wheelchair dazed, confused, scraped up, bleeding, and barefaced.
“Where’s your mask?” she demanded.
“In my pocket…?”
Knowing Deb, I can be sure eye-rolling ensued as she helped him put it on. Over the next four hours, the hospital staff ran test after test and seemed incredulous when they didn't find any real damage. Other patients and their families began to take an interest; one woman asked Mike’s name and went to check with the staff to make sure he was being properly cared for. When the results of the last test, a CT scan, finally came in, Deb told the woman Mike was muy bien (very good). And everyone around them burst into applause.
And that’s my whole point. Most people are kind enough to care about the fate of strangers. They don’t want to be responsible for killing anyone’s grandmother, or for letting my brother suffer by the side of the road or get lost in the shuffle of a busy emergency room in a foreign country.
These are fearful times, and it’s hardly surprising that some folks are scared silly and acting up in ways that attract media attention. Luckily we don’t have to let them set the tone for our times. The pandemic is going to be with us a while, and we’ll all have plenty of opportunities to step up and act decently, supporting each other during the darkest hours and celebrating together every time something turns out — despite all odds — to be muy bien.
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7/9/2020 05:37:31 pm
Bravo! I agree with everything you said except the part about the jury still being out about whether Americans have lost their minds or not. So many clearly have.
7/10/2020 05:47:25 pm
So true, Lynn; at this point, it's a landscape of chaos and madness, and every day I recoil at the headlines, thinking we've hit bottom — and then the next day is worse. Still, I cling to hope that eventually cooler heads may prevail.
7/9/2020 07:11:09 pm
Thank you for this. I needed it today. Your pandemic posts have been so helpful.
7/10/2020 05:51:26 pm
Thanks, Karen! I'm so glad you're enjoying the pandemic posts. Looks like I won't have to worry about running out of material to write about any time soon; the situation just keeps getting crazier. Knowing that people find my posts useful is one of the things that helps me keep going. So I really appreciate your comment.
7/9/2020 07:40:26 pm
Yes, Americans have lost their minds. I know men who laugh about masks and say they’ll never be caught in one. My own insurance agent posted a photo of himself in front of Costco, until recently one of a very few local businesses requiring masks, captioned “The ONLY place I’ll wear a mask!”. To the conservative mind, a mask is either extremely emasculating or the liberal equivalent of sporting a Confederate flag on your truck. They’ve taken that stance, and as you say, they are now backed into a corner of their own making. It’s ridiculous.
7/10/2020 05:57:44 pm
Well said, Mary. Yes, avoiding masks has become a trademark move for a certain brand of conservative yahoos, who may (if they're lucky) live to regret it. I have to wonder: if they find masks emasculating, what's a ventilator going to do to their self image?
7/9/2020 08:00:59 pm
Great article that everyone needs to read and take seriously! What is wrong with people?! If they allow themselves to put on a mask, they will have to face the fact that there is a big problem. Denial is a form of fear and they need to face it ....so everyone can be kept safer!
7/10/2020 06:05:33 pm
Thanks for your kind words, Faye, about the post and my brother's incredible good luck. You bring up a really good point about seatbelts; when there's a penalty, people find it easier to fall into line and do the right thing. In Spain we could be fined 100 euros for going out without a mask; it didn't happen often; usually people were sent home with a warning. But knowing there were consequences made all the difference. One of the failures of US leadership is that people are getting wildly different messages about what to do, and there's no incentive (beyond common sense) to do what top medical experts advise. You're right; just announcing a fine would motivate lots of people to do better!
7/9/2020 08:44:36 pm
America has well and truly lost its mind. People refusing to wear masks, people intentionally coughing on others, people assaulting others over masks, people refusing to follow the one way signs in groceries, people refusing to quarantine even after testing positive, etc. It is absurd. Wearing a mask isn't hard. I don't understand why so many Americans refuse to do it. And, I don't think those Americans are scared. I think they have truly bought into the "its all a hoax" mindset. It is so disheartening.
7/10/2020 06:17:50 pm
I agree it's crazy, Lisa and Robert, and thanks for bringing up the grocery store aisles, a pet peeve of mine. Our local market has extremely narrow aisles, and people, including store staff, are always wandering down them the wrong way, brushing by within inches of my face. Drives me nuts! OK, whew, thanks for letting me get that off my chest.
7/10/2020 01:12:32 am
Thank you for posting the sign about all of the things we do do without question. I plan to use it. Also, yes, I am ashamed of how the US feels mask wearing is a political freedom. With freedom comes responsibility.
7/10/2020 06:20:36 pm
Isn't that sign about seatbelts, etc. fabulous? Rich found it on Facebook and sent it to me. I said, "Yes! Yes! That's what I'm talking about!" I'd like to post it on every wall and website in America. Because we have to get past this partisan nonsense and, as you so wisely say, Peggy, accept the responsibility that comes with our freedom.
7/11/2020 07:12:24 am
If you think America looks crazy, you are right. Especially from the outside looking back at it! When our friends -- expats and Greeks alike -- ask, "What is happening or what has happened?" I no longer have an answer. Between the pandemic, protests, and elections . . .I think staying on this side of the pond is the best idea.
7/20/2020 04:10:42 pm
You are wise to stay put, Jackie. Things are a bit nuts around here, and you just can't explain it to anyone who lives in a country that thinks of masks as a health option not a political statement. I wonder where this is going next; are people going to start protesting against advice to wash their hands? No madness seems too outlandish these days. And election season is just heating up. Enjoy your side of the pond!
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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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