I’m on the road this morning, with very early flights. Being the prototypical Uptight Traveler, I got to Columbus’ John Glenn International Airport early to make sure there were no snags, which meant I encountered a gleamingly clean and mostly vacant terminal when I headed to my gate. (And, for those who make fun of my U.T. tendencies, I should note that there were long lines to check in bags at many of the airline counters when I arrived, so I am firm in my view that getting to the airport early remains a good option.)
This is the first flight I’ve taken since the mask mandate was lifted and masks became optional. Some travelers are wearing masks, but the vast majority are unmasked. I’d say the ratio of unmasked to masked is about 9 to 1. It’s kind of weird to be in a mostly unmasked airport after two years of pandemic-fueled masking. It makes the two-year masking period seem like a strange, unsettling dream.
I spent a lot of time in downtown Columbus today. Columbus is one of those cities where a mask mandate imposed by the Mayor has been in effect for months–since September 2021 and the early days of the Delta variant, in fact. (Who out there even remembers the dreaded days of the Delta variant? It seems like ancient history, doesn’t it?)
But today, the mask mandate was largely ignored. Many of the people I saw in downtown buildings weren’t masked up. And what was striking was the casualness of it all. People weren’t loud and proud about their de-masking or, so far as I could tell, consciously trying to make a political statement by walking inside buildings with a mask-free face. Instead, it was an utterly unceremonious thing–as if the maskless just decided that they had had enough, and weren’t going to go along with the mask requirements any more.
People in Columbus have been talking about when the Mayor is going to lift the mandate and allow residents to enter buildings without masks–which has been the rule in most of the surrounding suburbs and in many other Ohio cities. If I were the Mayor, and had been in downtown Columbus today, I would be thinking about lifting the edict sooner rather than later. It doesn’t do any good to issue directives if they are going to be casually ignored, and it seems pretty clear that that is what is happening here. Trying to keep the mask mandate in place when people are routinely ignoring it is fighting a losing battle–and what politician wants to do that?
As I’ve mentioned, in Columbus we are still dealing with a mask mandate imposed by our city government. Some places are dealing with the mandate with a welcome dollop of humor. I got a laugh out of this sign on the entrance to Dempsey’s restaurant, across from the Franklin County Courthouse, that equates the discomfort of masks and pants.
It’s true–pants are pretty uncomfortable, especially for those guys hanging around the bar drinking beer.
In Columbus, at least, things seem to be moving back to more of a masked-up world, as businesses try to figure out what to do in view of the delta variant of COVID. You really need to pay attention to signs and notices when you go into commercial establishments.
Yesterday I went to grocery shop at the Giant Eagle in Grandview. There was a card table in front of the entrance with a sign that said that all patrons, vaccinated or not, had to wear a mask to enter the store; next to the sign was a box of those familiar white and blue masks that Giant Eagle was offering for free so customers could mask up. So I donned my mask and entered to do my shopping. It quickly became apparent that some people either hadn’t seen the sign or were ignoring it, as about half of the patrons I saw were unmasked. No one from Giant Eagle seemed to be enforcing this particular store’s “mask mandate,” either.
Then I went to another store where the sign on the door “strongly encouraged “ everyone to wear a mask in the interests of protecting everyone’s health. In deference to the proprietor’s wishes, I put my mask on again before entering. Most of the other patrons didn’t.
I’m not sure how widespread the masking requests and requirements are, although my very limited experience indicates that Columbus stores are definitely more mask-oriented than businesses in Stonington. So while I’m here, I’ll have to keep a mask at hand, just in case. And my rule will be to defer to the instructions of the business owners, who really are in a no-win situation in view of the scary stories in the media and the ever-changing CDC guidance. For many business owners, the path of least resistance will be to follow CDC instructions. Whether they will have employees tasked with the thankless job of trying to enforce the mask rules is another question.
After yesterday’s experience, I wonder if we aren’t sliding, slowly but surely, back into the masking and social distancing world, after an all-too-brief taste of the old maskless and carefree normal. I’m not looking forward to it.
Today I am going to try a personal experiment of sorts.
Normally when I fly back to Columbus I fly from Bangor International Airport and connect in Philadelphia, or LaGuardia, or Reagan National for the second-leg flight to Columbus. But the last few times I’ve done that, my flight out of Bangor has been delayed and my connecting flight has been blown. As a result, I’ve had to spend hours in airport concourses, waiting for another flight back to Columbus. Normally, this wouldn’t be too bad, but the current masking requirement means you spend 9, 10, or 11 hours straight in a mask, breathing your own exhaust and trying to resist the constant urge to scratch your nose, and that pushes the experience into the “to be avoided at all costs” zone.
So I did some research, and found that there is one direct flight from the Portland, Maine International Jetport to Columbus. I’m on it today, It will require a long drive–a bit over three hours, total–because Portland is well to the south, and there are no short drives when you are talking about the shoreline-hugging roads of coastal Maine. But I like driving, when I’m in my car I can listen to music in a blessedly mask-free environment, and if Mother Nature and air traffic controllers and aircraft maintenance technicians and all of the other things that might delay a flight cooperate, I’ll minimize the masked time and probably spend about the same amount of time in transit as I would doing the two-hop trip from Bangor.
I respect the governmental air travel masking requirement and will faithfully comply with it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that it isn’t worth seeing whether there are viable options to avoid it. Today will test the direct versus indirect hypothesis, and the limits of my mask-avoidance options.
Here’s the issue, as I see it: our health care experts and politicians don’t seem to realize that their credibility isn’t what it once was. They seem weirdly panicky and overly protective, and willing to reverse course and make sweeping decisions that disrupt the lives of millions on the basis of untested models and supposition, rather than hard science. They also don’t seem to take into account the cost and impact of their suggestions, whether it is the mental health impact of isolating people due to shutdowns, the health effect of breathing through masks for hours on end, or the economic effect of restrictions on activities. And their latest change also undercuts the impetus for the crucial public health initiative of encouraging COVID vaccination. Some who haven’t been vaccinated will reason that if even fully vaccinated people need to wear masks to protect the unvaccinated, what’s the point of vaccination in the first place? And if protecting the unvaccinated is the goal, how long will this latest round of mask-wearing rules last?
It’s obviously not ideal that there is growing distrust of the public health authorities and politicians, but it’s important that those people recognize that the distrust and skepticism and resistance to sweeping edicts exists, and won’t be going away. If autumn brings new calls for lockdowns to deal with the delta variant, the general level of skepticism about the need for that kind of draconian action will be heightened–and I expect that the level of acceptance and compliance among the general population will be affected, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We all remember how the COVID pandemic started, as cases climbed and state and local governments closed businesses, put restrictions on activities, and imposed mask mandates. Now we’ll see how the pandemic will end — and how long that process will take.
One of the more interesting consequences of this pandemic has been the spectrum of risk tolerance we are seeing from businesses and our friends and colleagues. Some people have been out and about for months, traveling and dining out, others have stayed at home and are continuing to avoid any public places, and still others occupy every permutation in between. I think we’ll see a similar range of actions from state authorities, guided by the specific economic and health conditions in their states. Is an abrupt, total lifting of requirements the best course, or a gradual easing of restrictions, or keeping all mandates in place until it is crystal clear that there is no longer any risk whatsoever of a COVID resurgence? And do public health authorities really have the ability to give conclusive advice on when the pandemic, and the risks, have ended?
When you were a kid and scraped your knee in a childhood mishap, you put on a Band-Aid. After the Band-Aid did its work, you had to make a decision on how to remove it: rip it off, tug it off gradually, or do something in between. Texas’ Governor has taken the “rip it off” approach. Now we’ll see how that works out.
I noticed them doing some work around the Schiller statue on one of my recent walks around the park, and when I walked past the statue on Saturday I saw that Herr Schiller is now sporting an oversized mask. I suppose somebody in the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department decided we need yet another reminder of the need to wear masks — even though the statue is honoring social distancing dictates by staying more than six feet away from, and above, anyone walking by.
I’m sure whoever came up with the idea of masking the statue thought they were being pretty clever — even though masking up stuff has been done to death already. But the sight of the giant veiled statue provoked a pretty negative reaction from me. Must the authorities take every opportunity to hit us over the head with masks and other reminders of this ongoing pandemic? Can’t they leave at least some things alone, so we can get an occasional taste of the world as it was before “coronavirus” became a household word?
Trust me: we’re not going to forget that there’s a pandemic going on, even if there’s not a mask on every statue.
Now that it looks like masks are going to be with us for a while, we can expect to see a trend away from those blue-and-white paper masks and homemade cloth masks to more high-end masks with special messages or corporate branding. The process is already starting, as shown by this mask that is for sale at one of the downtown Stonington shops.
Will masks with the Starbucks logo, for example, become as much a part of the Starbucks employee “uniform” as the barista’s apron? Will the political types among us use masks to alert us to their voting preferences? And will matching masks be offered as part of the complete ensemble at women’s fashion websites? How long will it be before mask ads become a familiar part of the Facebook experience?
The American economy tends to move pretty quickly on this stuff when there is money to be made, and American consumers will lead the way. Before we know it, masks will be just another part of keeping up with the Joneses.
But now a new, and in my view especially gross, form of litter has emerged: coronavirus masks. It seems like you see them everywhere, and I find myself wondering why. Are people wearing masks for a time, then casually tossing them by the side of the road because they used them for one wearing and feel like disposing of them properly is risky? Or are masks just another form of debris, like soda cans or fast-food wrappers, to the litter-bugs among us? It certainly doesn’t seem like the number of masks you see could be the product of, say, masks inadvertently falling out of someone’s pocket.
I applaud the use of masks as a sound public health measure, and I am happy to see that more and more people are accepting masks as part of reality of life during a grinding pandemic and wearing them in appropriate settings. But mask responsibility has to extend beyond simply wearing the mask to include proper disposal, too. It’s disgusting to see mask litter, and the people who are doing that littering aren’t holding up their end of the societal bargain. Somebody else is going to have to go around and pick up those dirty masks that have been in touch with some unknown person’s mouth and nose. It’s not only gross, incredibly jerky behavior, it makes any kind of contract tracing impossible.
So to the mask litterers out there, I say thanks for wearing a mask, but please — keep track of it and discard it properly, will you?
Eyeglasses and masks really don’t go together. The masks cause warm, moist air — i.e., the air that just was exhaled from your warm, moist mouth and lungs — up onto the lenses of your glasses. The result? Fogged glasses, and the familiar embarrassing, blinded, stumbling sensation that the bespectacled among us really hate.
Before anyone jumps down my throat, I’m not suggesting that fogging is a reason not to wear a mask. Masks are a basic precaution when you’re going into an enclosed area during the global pandemic, and people should wear them in public places.
But I am saying that foggy glasses are unpleasant and a pain in the rear. And there doesn’t seem to be a good response to the maskfog factor. When I donned my first mask and experienced my first maskfog, I checked the internet for suggestions on how to deal with the issue. I found pages like this one. I tried the suggested approaches, I really did. I pinched the nose of my mask until it felt like a binder clip on the bridge of my nose. I tried using my glasses to “seal” my mask. Neither of those approaches worked. I admittedly didn’t try taping the mask down, because I don’t know how to do that, and in any case it doesn’t seem like a practical solution for the instances where you put on a mask to enter a commercial establishment and remove it when you leave the place. And “soap and water” typically isn’t readily available in that scenario, either, unless you’re supposed to keep a supply with you at all times.
So I appeal to the glasses wearers out there. Have you found a way to solve the maskfog dilemma? If so, I’d definitely be interested in hearing it.