I stood fists balled in my pockets outside the automatic sliding doors on a cold gray spring morning in May. I fingered the scrap of cloth in my pocket as my heart hammered in my ears. Here goes nothing, I thought.
The United States had just reached another milestone in the pandemic. Those of us fully vaccinated were free to take off our masks everywhere except inside health care facilities, public transportation, schools, homeless shelters, and jails.
Relaxed restrictions was good news for some, but bad news for others. All hospitalized patients could now have visitors, not just those nearing end of life. However, our public emergency department anticipated an uptick in violence and aggression as eviction moratoriums were removed pushing more people into homelessness.
I mustered the courage and entered the grocery store. Nobody paid me any notice. It was very early. Employees were stocking shelves and morning shoppers were intent on their lists. Everyone else wore a mask. I learned later that day that my county recommended continuation of masking indoors until June 30th as originally planned. (It’s states vs the federal government here in America!) Sheepishly I returned the next week with my mask back on.
We had almost taken flight but not quite.
I’m a smiley person and I like to smile at babies. Up until about 9 months when they naturally develop stranger anxiety, they universally smile back. It makes me happy. I found myself worried in the past year and a half that babies born during the pandemic might never know a smile other than their parents.’ Fortunately, I’ve found that the crinkles around the eyes are enough of a cue for most babies. It doesn’t matter that I wear a mask, most babies smile back when I smile at them. Try it. We all need more smiles in our life.
The day after I entered the grocery store maskless, I spoke to the owner of the coffee shop Tougo. It has been a bad 18 months for him as a black business owner who had just opened a new store as COVID hit. To make matters worse, vandals attacked it a few months later during the Black Lives Matter riots in Seattle.
After confirming we were both vaccinated we took off our masks, the only two people in a large well-ventilated beautiful space filled with plants. He shared his handsome smile with me.
He told me he would like people to continue to wear masks because he wants everyone to leave his shop better off than when they arrived. He related a story of a colleague he recently had lunch with. Even though they were both vaccinated he was nervous around this man because of his cavalier attitude early in the pandemic, going to bars before masks were mandated and lording his white-supremacist bravado over others.
We talked about how self-centered most Americans are. That we live in a me culture rather than a we culture. That in places like Japan people wear masks when they have colds so they don’t give it to other people. After chatting for five minutes, the next customer entered and we masked up again.
An article in our local paper the week of the CDC’s announcement quoted psychologists stating that some people are just not ready for the full reopening that Washington state had planned for June 30th. Humans are creatures of habit and it will take awhile to relearn social norms that changed so much in the last 18 months. The article pointed out that everyone had a different experience during the pandemic and all emotions and feelings and the decisions we make with them regarding personal masking are acceptable. We must be compassionate.
I started writing this article the day after my grocery store escapade and had to abandon the submission a week later when my husband spiked a fever of 102 F. He was sick, really sick. Damn it all, I thought. He was too ill to drive himself to the drive-thru COVID testing center, a refurbished emissions testing site. It is of course now the first thing you must do when you get sick. Thankfully it turned out to be Campylobacter, the most common type of traveler’s diarrhea world-wide. Since when are we thankful to get traveler’s diarrhea? And we haven’t traveled!
June 30th came and went and I didn’t go back into the grocery store without the mask. I just couldn’t do it. I lost my mojo, my bravery, my determination to be ruled by science and not emotion. But at the end of the day, so many of our decisions are emotional and not logical aren’t they?
I resumed writing this article a week ago and my whole family got a cold. Really? Colds still exist? It boggles my imagination. We of course trotted off back to the former emissions testing center to get COVID tested. Despite staying home from work last week, we managed to camp in the mountains this weekend at a very remote alpine lake near Mt. Rainier, away from cell reception and the rest of the world. The beauty and escape were much appreciated and needed.
Upon returning to civilization, my phone greeted me with the news that Seattle’s King County has decided to have everyone put masks back on inside. Damn it all, I thought. We just can’t take flight, it seems. I got home and rewrote this blog entry for the fourth time.
But…if you tell me you are vaccinated and we go outside, I’ll take off my mask. If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine. We all need more smiles in our life.
Søvn Drake is an emerging writer who can be found haunting coffee shops in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. More about her and her writing can be found at: https://sovndrakestories.wordpress.com
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