It’s past time to take the pandemic seriously

By BEN R. WILLIAMS

The other day I followed an older man into the post office. As he went up the stairs, he had to grip the handrail tightly to haul himself up, his breathing labored. While I’m no doctor, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of additional physical symptoms that suggested he was either diabetic or even in the early stages of congestive heart failure.

I was wearing a mask. He was not. And when he saw that I was wearing one, he stared at me with such anger that you would have thought I ran over his dog.

That same week, I was standing in line inside a convenience store. I was wearing my mask, and I was standing on the little red circle that demarcated six feet between me and the next person in line. A maskless old man was standing right next to me, too close for comfort even if there wasn’t a pandemic raging through the country. I could see in my peripheral vision that he was staring intently at the side of my head, either building up the courage to say something to me or hoping that I would say something to him. Frankly, I was hoping he would speak first. These days, I just want an excuse to give someone a piece of my mind.

Also that same week, I was talking to a good friend of mine who owns his own business. Thanks to some smart decisions he’s made, his business is surviving, but in order to thrive, it relies on large numbers of people being able to come through the front doors. Obviously, thriving is not on the immediate horizon.

Our conversation kept returning to the same topic: why can’t people just wear their damn masks? We never came up with a solid answer, or at least not a charitable one. But the fact is, if everyone had just worn their masks early on and stayed home for two or three weeks, we could be in the same position as so many countries around the world, where life has returned to semi-normalcy and the occasional virus flare-ups are quickly identified and quarantined.

On Nov. 13, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam unveiled new statewide restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus. Gatherings have been reduced from 250 people to 25. Fewer spectators are allowed at athletic events. Alcohol can no longer be sold at bars and restaurants after 10 p.m.

Predictably, the Facebook comments on every news story announcing the restrictions were a cesspit of weapons-grade ignorance, with readers proclaiming that Gov. Northam is essentially the lovechild of Hitler, Satan, and the planet-devouring comic book supervillain Galactus.

Here’s the thing: these new restrictions have absolutely no impact on my life or on the lives of most folks I know. You couldn’t pay me to be in a gathering of 250 people right now. I’ve eaten inside of exactly one restaurant since March, and that was only because there were no other customers, and I still felt weird about it.

With nearly 250,000 dead from coronavirus in the U.S. at the time of this writing, it’s time to be perfectly frank: if you know someone whose lifestyle is going to change due to Northam’s new restrictions, then they’re part of the problem. And maybe it’s time to tell them that.

I try to understand these folks, I really do. I don’t like wearing a mask either. I also wish I could go see a movie in the theater. I wish I could have a whole bunch of my friends up to my house like I used to in The Before Times. I wish that I could go to concerts, and eat inside restaurants, and fly to Las Vegas and hit up the Pinball Hall of Fame again.

One day, I will do those things again. And I’m OK with waiting a bit if it means I don’t contract or share a disease with long-lasting impacts we don’t yet fully understand.

At first, I thought that many of the anti-maskers would change their minds when someone they knew died from the disease. Some people, I suppose, only believe a danger is real when it affects them personally. As for me, I don’t need to watch someone get mauled by a grizzly bear to believe that grizzly bears are dangerous, but maybe some people do need that experience.

However, it seems like it hasn’t happened. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t lost anyone close to me, but I have lost a handful of acquaintances, people I’ve met in passing over the years, and I have no doubt that just about everyone knows someone who has died of COVID-19. I’m 36, and I’ve read a number of articles about people my age or younger dying of COVID-19 or suffering terrible and bizarre complications that last for months on end.

I’ve also read plenty of articles — as I’m sure you have too — about the coronavirus deniers who railed against wearing masks right up until the disease put them at death’s door or pushed them clean through it, realizing only on their deathbeds that maybe, just maybe, they should have taken the whole pandemic thing a bit more seriously.

Back in April or May, I would have had sympathy for that last group. It’s a whole lot harder now.

It has been said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own set of facts. What is most surreal about the pandemic, in my opinion, is the feeling that roughly half of the U.S. population is living in an alternate reality. Back during the summer, which I pretty much spent in my house, I saw countless photos on social media of people living it up at Myrtle Beach, SC. It blew my mind. And predictably, when I went to bring some essentials to a family member in a rehab center just a few weeks later, the nurse asked me the following question as she took my temperature: “In the last two weeks, have you been outside of the country or to Myrtle Beach?”

It’s all getting to be pretty predictable. We all know what’s going to happen over the next couple of months. While the virus is surging across the U.S. even now, it’s going to surge even more when people get together in mass gatherings for Thanksgiving because they’re not going to let some stupid virus dictate how they live their lives. And then, come Christmas, they’re going to do it all again. Probably because they think that’s what grandpa, who passed away about three weeks after Thanksgiving, would have wanted.

I realize that sounds harsh. But now is the time to be harsh. Now is the time to take this thing seriously. And if you know anyone who’s complaining about the new restrictions or arguing that masks impede their personal freedom or claiming that they should be able to walk into any private business they please without following basic safety precautions, now is the time to tell them that they’re part of the problem.

And if they don’t like it, maybe it’s time to start avoiding them like the plague.

 

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