Wiped Out

Every flight I’ve taken recently has a new feature in the boarding process: a flight attendant who solemnly hands you precisely one sanitizing wipes packet as you enter the plane. (I suppose it’s possible that you could get extra packets, but I’ve never asked.)

It’s not clear to me what you’re supposed to do with the one wipe, and no instruction is given—which is strange because airlines typically overinstruct you about everything, even how to fasten your seat belt. Are you supposed to use the wipe on your hands? The flimsy tray table? The arm rests? The seat belt? The seat itself, with the cushion that also helpfully serves as a flotation device? Or all of the above, which would be asking a lot of one tiny packet with one sanitizing wipe? Hey, are the airlines suggesting that they aren’t thoroughly cleaning these planes any more and asking us to pitch in?

I put the wipe packet in my pocket or use it as a bookmark and eventually add it to my home wipe collection. I haven’t seen anyone else use one, either. But on one flight yesterday, the young woman sitting next to me broke open the packet and carefully wiped down her tray table and the back of the seat in front of her, and probably wanted to wipe me down, too. Then she never touched or used the tray table in any way.

This new travel rite of passage seems very odd to me, but I suppose it’s all part of an effort to get the germophobes out there more comfortable with flying. If wipe packet distribution does the trick, so be it.

The Great Unmasking (Cont.)

It was a hot, sunny weekend in Columbus, and lots of German Village residents and visitors were out and about. I did a lot of walking around the Village and around Schiller Park. With the temperature touching the 90s, it’s not surprising that nobody was masked up; wearing any kind of mask in that heat would have been unbearable. And one other change in behavior was readily apparent, too: people were sharing the sidewalks and walking past each other, shoulder to shoulder, without veering.

It was incredibly refreshing to walk the pretty streets of German Village without having to veer around parked cars or use the roadway to achieve at least six feet of social distancing. No one was consciously trying to maintain the buffer zone, and no one seemed to mind being in close proximity with other people, either. It struck me as another good sign of returning normalcy.

We’ll all carry our own memories of what it was like for us, personally, during the COVID shutdown period. One of my memories will be dodging traffic and other pedestrians and getting annoyed with people who hogged the sidewalk without yielding or moving over to help achieve social distancing recommendations. I’m glad they are just memories now.

The Great Unmasking (Cont.)

Yesterday I was on the road and in an airport for the first time in months. It was my first exposure to a mandatory mask environment after weeks of mask-free or at most temporary entry/exit masking on Deer Isle, where you see fewer and fewer people—residents or tourists—wearing their masks. I adjusted to a no-mask existence pretty easily and quickly, so being back in a mandatory mask environment was a bit jarring.

My travel day got messed up due to mechanical and weather issues, so I spent a lot of time in airport concourses, watching the world go by. And based on one day’s experience I’d say people are a lot laxer about masking now than they were at the height of the pandemic.

In part, I think this is due to the reopening of most businesses in the airport concourses, especially food businesses. Once you plant your behind in a chair in an airport restaurant or bar, you’re magically freed from the mask mandate. It’s kind of weird to think that food consumption creates a magical no-mask zone, but it’s a recognized loophole and people were taking advantage of it. I had dinner in a typical pub/restaurant place in Reagan National, and it was packed with people, crammed into seating areas that, like every airport dining option, was set up to leave you elbow-to-elbow with other patrons, and everyone had their masks off, chatting and laughing and inches away from unmasked strangers. No one seemed troubled by that. And yet, when you leave that magical mask-free zone, you’ve got to mask up again. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it makes me wonder if patrons are lingering longer, or consuming more, just to enjoy a few minutes more of unfettered breathing. I would guess it is boom times for all airport bars and eateries.

And speaking of consumption, travelers seemed to be taking advantage of the food consumption loophole to doff the mask and chow down in the gate areas, too. I saw one guy buying an armload of every kind of junk food you can imagine being sold by an airport concourse outlet—chips, soda, popcorn, jerky, cookies, and candy—and later saw him, mask off, noshing away on his calorie hoard. Others had bought take -out from fast food places and were taking their time and enjoying multiple gulps of maskless air as they ever-so-slowly ate their food. And one guy at National casually walked around, mask cinched up on his upper arm, carrying a cup of airport coffee, as if holding a beverage and taking a sip every few minutes excused him from mask requirements. He talked to a gate agent for a while without masking and she didn’t call him on it, either.

In this food loophole setting, the dire broadcasts over the loudspeakers about wearing only approved masks (no “gaiters”!) and being disciplined for not fully complying with mask mandates seem almost antique. Airports and airplanes will be the last bastion of masking, but I wonder how long it will be before they give it up. Yesterday’s food exception experience suggests the population is ready to bare their faces and accept the consequences.

Maskambiguity

To mask, or not to mask? That is the question.

We’re in the midst of the transitional period after the COVID pandemic, when you don’t know quite what you’re supposed to do in the masking department when you go into a commercial establishment. Some of the places on Deer Isle have signs that ask the unvaccinated to wear a mask, tell you that masks are optional for everyone else, but then include a kind of generic, bland exhortation about masks “keeping everyone safe.” It’s as if the signs are designed to maximize mushy maskambiguity, a word that I just made up.

Does the proprietor of an establishment with that kind of sign really want the vaccinated among us to wear a mask as a kind of social nicety, or are they just trying to just cover all the bases and not upset the pro-mask and anti-mask factions in our society? In view of a sign like that, if you wear a mask, are you indicating that you are unvaccinated? And then, often, you go into the place, and the employees may not be wearing masks but some of the patrons are, or the employees are masked but the most of the customers aren’t. And you might see a masked person in the midst of shopping glance around furtively, assess the masking quotient in the establishment at that point in time, see that most people aren’t wearing masks, and remove their mask and wonder why they ever put it on in the first place.

I’ll look forward to the day when the maskambiguity is gone, and no one is wearing masks or is expected to wear masks. Until then, I appreciate places that give you clear mask instructions. One place in downtown Stonington frankly states that everyone who enters the store right now must wear a mask, period. I don’t have a problem with that. If the proprietor feels more comfortable with masked customers for now, that’s their call. It may take a while for people to get used to the idea of unmasked people in an enclosed space again, and that’s okay. But at least they should be clear about what they want.

Pent-Up Demand

Our local newspaper, Island Ad-Vantages, reported in its most recent edition that it’s looking like it could be a very good year for the Stonington and Deer Isle tourist businesses. An article said that the “summer people”–that is, the visitors and part-time residents who drive the tourist part of the local economy–have come to Deer Isle earlier than ever before, and the hotels and motels are reporting full bookings. I got visual confirmation of that when I walked past Boyce’s Motel in downtown Stonington over the weekend and saw its “no vacancy” sign.

The owner of Boyce’s Motel is quoted in the article as attributing the surge in visitors and reservations to what he calls “revenge travel,” in which people who have been staying put at home make a special effort to get out and about. My sense, too, is that there is a pent-up demand that was created during the prolonged shutdown period, and people now just want to get away from the too-familiar surroundings where they waited out the COVID pandemic. And taking a trip to get a welcome change of scenery is a good way to make a personal statement, to yourself and to the world at large, that as far as you are concerned things are getting back to normal.

Whatever the cause, the increased tourist traffic is good news for the town and those businesses who suffered through a lean lockdown year in 2020. I’m hoping to see a lot of that “no vacancy” sign this year.

Camp Maskedalot

The CDC has been hard at work. It has developed extensive COVID-related guidelines for virtually every activity or gathering Americans might conceivably participate in these days. There is specific CDC guidance for workplaces and businesses, schools, retirement communities, church functions–even something super-specific, like what to do if you are operating a community garden or outdoor learning garden. You can take a look at the roster of guidance here.

A lot of people are wondering what the CDC is doing to come up with its extensive guidance, and precisely what the scientific basis–if any–is for some of the ultra-cautious rules the CDC has laid down. One set of CDC recommendations in particular has been target of special criticism: the guidance for summer camps. In fact, a recent article in New York magazine called the CDC summer camp guidance “cruel” and “irrational.”

It’s fair to say that the CDC rules would produce a summer camp experience that would bear no resemblance to the summer camps many of us attended as kids. Let’s just say that the kids who were unlucky enough to go to a CDC-compliant camp wouldn’t be spending carefree hours around a campfire, playing capture the flag with their newfound camp friends, or sitting at long tables and making bad ashtrays for Mom and Dad during the “craft period.” The New York article summarizes some of the guidance as follows:

“Masks must be worn at all times, even outdoors, by everyone, including vaccinated adults and children as young as 2 years old. The exceptions are for eating and swimming. (The guidance helpfully notes that if a person is having trouble breathing or is unconscious, no mask need be worn.) Campers must remain three feet apart from each other at all times including, again, outdoors. Six feet of distance must be maintained during meals and between campers and staff. If you need to sneeze and you don’t have a tissue, do it into your mask. (Children presumably are expected to carry a cache of spares.) Campers and staff should be cohorted, and any interaction with a person outside the cohort must be conducted at a distance of six feet. Art supplies, toys, books, and games are not to be shared.”

(Other than that, kids, have a blast!)

The New York article notes that the science and statistics have shown that kids are at “exceedingly low” risk of any kind of serious illness from COVID–and that’s from statistics gathered before most of the adults around them, including, presumably, camp counselors, have been vaccinated. And there is very little evidence that there is a serious risk of COVID transmission from outdoor activity like hiking (or running around with fellow campers), either. As a result, the New York article observes: “The notion that children should wear masks outdoors all day in the heat of July, or that they can’t play any sport that involves physical contact, or put an arm around a friend strikes many experts in infectious diseases, pediatrics, epidemiology, and psychiatry as impractical, of dubious benefit, and punishing in its effects on children.”

Has anyone at the CDC even experienced a broiling Midwestern summer day? Anybody who masks up on a 90-degree day with the sun beating down on them is asking for a truly miserable time–and maybe heat stroke, besides. It’s hard to believe that any rational person reviewed this guidance, or ran it past others for comment and evaluation. It’s as if the CDC is so focused on the COVID boogeyman that it has forgotten all of the other health risks involved in life.

Our public health authorities haven’t exactly covered themselves with glory during this COVID period. They’ve sent out a lot of mixed messages, and in my view their hyper-cautious recommendations about what fully vaccinated people should be able to do is quashing enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. The absurd CDC guidance for summer camps is just another hard-scratcher that further undercuts the credibility of a once-esteemed institution. The CDC would benefit by taking a hard look at what it is doing.

Back To The Fin & Fern

The Fin & Fern is a cozy local restaurant on the edge of town, next to the mailboat dock. It serves great food in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Last year it was a dining mainstay for us during the COVID Summer of 2020, when some of the other local restaurants shut down. And it apparently stayed open, at reduced hours, through the winter months, continuing to serve the residents of Stonington and provide them with another chance to get away from their home cooking for an evening.

So when we got back to Stonington, of course we decided to promptly pay a visit to the F&F, both to get an excellent meal and also to reward them for being courageous stalwarts during a very difficult time. The food was great, as always–we shared some very tasty oysters, and I had a delicious, perfectly cooked ribeye steak for my entree–and we were glad to see that the place was jammed with patrons. I’m betting that many of them also wanted to reward the F&F, and that the restaurant’s decision to stay open created some customer loyalty that will last for a long time.

Last year I wrote periodically about the need to support local restaurants and bars, which were hard hit by the shutdown orders. Keep them in mind this year, too, as the country works to recover from the pandemic period. And if there are places in your towns that stayed open during the worst of it, give them a special nod, won’t you? They deserve it.

Capturing COVID On The Cusp

Over the weekend I finished Michael Connelly’s The Law Of Innocence. It’s the latest in his series of books about Mickey Haller, the “Lincoln Lawyer” who represents all manner of criminal defendants and manages his law practice from the back seat of his Lincoln automobile.

It’s a good read. I like Connelly’s spare, reportorial writing style and plotting and could probably be entertained reading a grocery list so long as he wrote it. But what’s really interesting about this book, which is set in late 2019 and early 2020 and was published at the end of 2020, is how Connelly skillfully, and realistically, weaves in references to the looming COVID crisis. The reader, and the book’s characters, catch occasional glimpses of the coming pandemic in the far background of the main story, which involves Haller defending himself against a phony murder rap. Every once in a while there will be a reference to what was happening with sick people in China, or Seattle–and the reader remembers their own initial, occasional awareness of the COVID virus during that pre-lockdown period, and knows in the pit of their stomach what is coming, even if Mickey Haller and the book’s other characters don’t.

I don’t know how many other works of fiction have been published where the COVID pandemic plays a role; I suspect that with The Law Of Innocence Michael Connelly, who writes produces books regularly to the delight of his grateful fans, has published one of the first ones. I’m confident it won’t be the last. Fiction is shaped by what’s going on in the world, and the COVID pandemic is bound to produce a lot of books. Who knows? Perhaps one day literature professors will be debating which book should be viewed as the great COVID pandemic novel.

New Words For New Times

Germany has a checkered history, to put it mildly, but you’ve got to to give them credit in one area. As I’ve noted before, Germans have an uncanny knack for inventing useful words that capture very specific feelings or concepts.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Germany would be leading the way in inventing new words to deal with the COVID-19 world. In fact, the Leibniz Institute for the German Language did an analysis and determined that some 1,200 new words have been created during this pandemic period. One of the professors involved in the process of collecting the words concludes that the word creation process helps the German to deal with pandemic anxiety, which is captured by one of the new words: Coronaangst.

Some of the 1,200 words are pretty useful, and I’m going to try to incorporate them into my daily vocabulary. For example:

Impfneid — vaccination envy

Hamsterkauf — panic buying and stockpiling food like a hamster (This one is bound to be used in the post-pandemic world, whenever a hurricane or some other hazardous impending event is forecast.)

Coronafrisur — corona hairstyle (Who doesn’t know at least one person who hasn’t grown a special coronafrisur? I’ll be using this one the next time I talk to the Red Sox Fan, who has grown a remarkable mane during the shutdown period.)

Alltagsmaske — everyday mask

Abstandsbier — distance beer

Maskentrottel — literally, “mask idiot,” to refer to someone who wears a face covering leaving the nose exposed

When you consider the choice words the Germans have come up with, I’m afraid we Americans are losing the Words Race. About the only new phrase I can think of is “social distancing”–which I think gets absolutely blown out of the water by hamsterkauf.

The Middle Seat Muddle

This week the CDC released information about whether airlines should follow policies that block off the middle seat on their planes. The CDC announced that laboratory modeling showed that blocking off the middle passenger seat, in either single-aisle or double-aisle planes, reduced airborne exposure to infectious diseases from fellow passengers by 23 percent to 57 percent. Those in the airline industry promptly noted that “the CDC admits that the current studies quantifying the benefit of specific social distancing strategies in the cabin, such as keeping the middle seats vacant, are limited.”

I don’t know which airlines–if any–are still blocking off the middle seats of flights. We flew American to and from Arizona on our recent visit, and on our flights every seat, including the middle seat, was filed. The airlines not only take the position that the science cited by the CDC is “limited,” but also point out that the airline industry took a huge hit in the early days of COVID, when most people avoided travel, and they need to sell those middle seats to recover economically and become profitable again.

It’s a class example of the tug-of-war between public health and profitability. I’m convinced that, if the CDC had its druthers, they’d rather every American stayed in their homes and avoided any risks whatsoever. And when it comes to air travel, they’d rather people are more spaced out (cramped passengers wouldn’t mind that, either), everyone wears masks, no food is served, and aircraft are designed so that all potential disease transmission vectors are avoided. Of course, if the airlines followed all of the CDC’s guidance, the cost of air travel would inevitably increase, some airlines would go out of business, and people wouldn’t be happy about it.

I’m guessing the airlines will come out on top in the middle-seat muddle and will continue to fill those middle seats, unless the FAA or Congress actually mandates that middle seats be left vacant. But you can bet that the airlines won’t object to the public health requirements that don’t affect their bottom line–like requiring passengers to wear masks at all times, regardless of their vaccination status or COVID case data. I think air travelers are going to be masked for the foreseeable future–and maybe permanently.

Liquid Normalcy

In normal times, I’m a big office water fountain guy. There’s a water fountain on my floor, only a few steps away from my office. I would twist the little white knob and take a healthy draught of ice cold water at least a dozen times a day, maybe more. It’s refreshing, and my doctor says it’s good for me, and it’s one of the few easy things I can do to comply with those nagging aspirational physician lifestyle suggestions. Walking to the water fountain for a drink is also a good way to take a quick break and think about what I’m working on, away from the glow of the computer screen.

But since the COVID pandemic hit, our office water fountain has been closed down. There’s a sad sign on it saying that it has been deactivated as part of our office pandemic protocols. As a result, if I want to have a drink of water at the office, I need to fill up my coffee cup with tap water at the communal sink, rather than getting a brisk drink directly from the bubbler.

It’s not the same. The water temperature isn’t as frigid and bracing, and in my mind I also intuitively think that I’m just drinking some tap water, rather than water fountain water. (It’s probably exactly the same water, of course, but just try getting your subconscious brain to rationally accept that fact.)

Many places are struggling to figure out how to reopen their work spaces, and many workers like me are looking for signs that we’re finally getting back to whatever is going to be defined as “normal” once the pandemic is over. For me, one of the leading economic indicators of being back to normal will be the removal of that sad sign, and the opportunity to drink some of that cold water fountain water again.

Up In The Air Again

We flew back from Tucson yesterday, connecting through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which is traditionally one of the nation’s busiest airports. Here are a few additional observations about air travel during the COVID period.

  • Every flight we took, to and from Tucson, was absolutely full of passengers. I’m not sure whether the airlines have reduced the number of flights to ensure packed planes, or whether people are just sick of staying at home and want to get out, or whether we were seeing the tail end of the spring break rush, or whether it was a combination of all three factors. For whatever reason, we rode in full planes.
  • Tucson’s airport was not very busy, and when we arrived in Columbus at about 8 p.m. last night the airport was almost empty–but O’Hare was jammed with people and looked like the pre-pandemic O’Hare. Obviously, navigating from one gate to another in a crowded airport doesn’t give you much opportunity to practice social distancing. You’re dodging and skirting people in the concourse, standing in long lines if you want to get something to eat, and sitting cheek by jowl with other passengers in the gate area. Our airports aren’t designed for social distancing; they are designed to pen as many people as possible into the smallest space possible, and there is really not much you can do about it.
  • The social distancing impulses developed over the last year made me more irritable than I expected as I moved from one concourse at O’Hare to another. I’ve written before about the fact that many travelers seem to lack any meaningful spatial or situational awareness, but the problem is compounded when you are trying to practice social distancing and people just stop dead in the middle of a concourse walkway, or abruptly turn around against the flow of traffic, or act like they are out for a casual stroll in the park when people are rushing to catch their next flight. Is it too much to ask for people to be aware that they need to move with the flow of pedestrian traffic, keep pace with the crowds, and work toward the edge of the crowd when they need to exit the flow to get to their gate?
  • I will sound like a whiner, but wearing a mask for hours with no break on a busy travel day is not pleasant. When we finally got home, it felt great to take the mask off and breathe a few hearty gulps of unmasked air. I don’t know how long the federal mask mandate will last, but I suspect that it will ultimately affect travel patterns, if it hasn’t done so already. If I were going somewhere that is within reasonable driving distance, I would much prefer to hop in my car and take a mask-free trip, even if it meant longer travel from portal to portal, rather than masking up for hours of sitting in crowded airports and planes.

COVID Travel

We took a commercial airline flight a few days ago, and the pandemic continues to change the way we travel. Here are a few things I noticed:

* In the three airports we used on our trip, many of the stores, including food and snack options, were closed, and the ones that were open had very long lines. In Phoenix, for example, the line for a Wendy’s had about 30 people in it, which means you’ve got a pretty long wait for your Frosty. Next time we travel by air we’ll pack a lunch or a snack.

* The months of social conditioning about social distancing have had an impact. If you get to your gate early, people are spaced far apart, but as departure time nears the gaps fill in and people get noticeably antsy when people sit in the adjoining seat—and that’s even with everyone masked up.

* Here’s a positive: masked travelers make fewer annoying and intrusive phone calls. The gate areas are a lot quieter.

* The airline magazine on our flight, shown above, has supposedly been treated with some process to make it safe to handle. Nevertheless, it looked like it hadn’t been touched, and I didn’t flip through it, either. I bet readership is way down, and wonder whether this is the death knell for such magazines. For now, though, travelers can expect pristine in-flight magazines and untouched crossword puzzles., even if they are flying mid-month.

* The pre-flight lecture has gotten longer, with a COVID-19 specific section at the end. We were told that federal law now mandates a two-layer mask, and scarves, gaiters, and bandannas do not make the cut. And, keeping with the airline tendency to say even the most obvious stuff—like how to work the seat belt—we’re now being told that if the oxygen masks drop, it’s okay to remove your COVID masks before donning your oxygen mask.

Tread Lightly, Pranksters!

On this April Fool’s Day, here is some heartfelt advice for those who are scheming about practical jokes: tread lightly today.

Any capable prankster has to consider the setting, the nature of the prank, and the prankee. Any kid old enough to attempt an April Fool’s Day gag during his formative years intuitively understood this. You might try the “put salt in the sugar bowl” trick on your brother, but you were risking an explosion if you pulled it on your Dad as he was taking his first, wake-up sip of morning coffee. And doing anything permanently destructive, like sawing through the legs of a chair so your sister would crash to the ground when she sat down for her cereal, was clearly out of bounds.

This year, any practical jokers need to understand their audience and some reasonable boundaries, too. We’ve been pretty battered by the past year, and we’re more brittle than normal. So slipping somebody one of those dripping cups, or putting an obscene hat on the statue in Schiller Park, or sticking a “kick me” sign on Captain Kirk’s back might be funny, but nobody’s going to get much of a belly laugh out of a COVID-oriented gag. Let’s not mess around with vaccination needles, for example, or cut up vaccination cards. And I’m not sure how those who have been involuntarily housebound for more than a year now would react to a flaming bag on their doorstep, either.

The best April Fool’s Day jokes have a certain silly, timeless quality, anyway–like the 1957 BBC broadcast that convinced some gullible Brits that pasta was harvested from trees in Switzerland. If you’re interested in reading about legendary pranks of the past, take a look here and here. But if you’re going to actually try a prank, please–go easy on us!

Upper Arm Display

The combination of COVID-19 vaccination sweeping the nation and social media being a primary form of communication in modern America has produced an unusual situation. We’re seeing a lot more of people’s bared upper arms these days–either displaying the Band-Aid signifying that they’ve got their shot or actually getting stuck by a needle.

This is unusual because the upper arm is a part of the body that normally is blissfully covered by clothing. In pre-COVID times, it would be rare indeed to encounter a friend and have them expose their upper arm in greeting you. There’s a reason for this. Unless you’re a bodybuilder who is working on getting ready for next year’s Arnold Classic, you’re not really paying much attention to that triceps area.

Oh, you may have noticed, with a sad realization of the regrettable realities of aging, that as you’ve gotten older that upper arm area has become saggy, with a flap of loose skin and jelly-like flab that hangs down and sways in the breeze when you hold your arm out. But you thought that, in the priority list of body parts that demand attention in your personal fitness regimen, the upper arms fall well below, say, the waistline, because they are simply not as visible and obvious to the casual observer. That is, they weren’t as visible and obvious until posting vaccination photos suddenly became de rigueur.

We weren’t prepared for this new reality, which is just another way in which COVID-19 has upset our well-ordered, pre-pandemic world. And now I wonder: will the increased visibility of the upper arm cause a surge in people hitting the gym and performing push-ups or other exercises designed specifically to tone those triceps areas, to make for more attractive vaccination photos when the COVID booster shots inevitably hit the market in the future?

In the meantime, we can all be grateful that vaccination shots are given in the upper arm, and not in the belly.