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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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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