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.

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.

The Great Unmasking

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.

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an order, to take effect next Wednesday, that will end the state’s mask mandate and allow all businesses of any type to open at 100 percent capacity. The press release from the Governor’s office, linked above, recognizes that “COVID-19 has not disappeared,” but notes that more than 5 million Texans have been vaccinated and about a million vaccinations are being administered each week, and concludes that state mandates are no longer needed and reopening Texas “100 percent” is necessary to “restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans.” Under the Governor’s approach, Texans, and Texas businesses, will decide for themselves what practices they will follow.

Abbott’s decision has been strongly criticized. President Biden called it a “big mistake” that was the product of “Neanderthal thinking,” for example, and the CDC Director says “now is not the time to release all restrictions” because the next month or two will be “pivotal” in determining the course of the pandemic. And Texas businesses are taking different approaches to mask issues in view of the order, with some lifting restrictions and others still requiring employees and customers to mask up. Some businesses note that the Governor’s order puts them and their employees in an awkward position: if they decide to continue to require masks from customers because the CDC thinks that is the right course, they are putting their employees in a position of enforcing the requirement–and increasing the risk of confrontations with customers who refuse to do so.

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.

Overmasked

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.

Masked Messaging

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.

The New Litter Gross-Out

I can’t stand litter of any kind.  Back in the pre-coronavirus days, I would regularly pick up the litter found around the perimeter of Schiller Park and fume inwardly at the jerks who deposited the litter in the first place.  Of course, the emergence of a global pandemic with multiple pathways for transmission made the litter pick-up approach especially ill-advised, so I stopped.

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? 

The Maskfog Factor

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.

jimmyBefore 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.

Coronavirus Dreams

My theory about dreams is straightforward:  while your conscious brain is sleeping, your subconscious brain is still at work, sifting through what you’ve read or heard or seen or otherwise experienced recently and trying to organize it into some kind of story — because our brains crave order and are hard-wired to try to put things into patterns.  Dreams are strange and disconnected because it’s hard to turn random incidents into a coherent story, but the subconscious brain does its best.

I think the operative plot elements of your dreams all come from the recent brain input, but ancillary characters, background settings, and other details that fill in the inevitable, yawning gaps in the story line are drawn from your vast repository of memories.  That’s why you might see a former work colleague who has been dead for years suddenly turn up, sharply etched from memory, as the boatyard attendant in a dream that involves some weird effort to take a boat to meet a friend.  And because the settings seem to be based on decades of collective memories, they tend to involve, in some murky, dream-like sense, the world of the past.

That’s why it’s interesting to me that, four months after the coronavirus hit and the world tilted on its axis, I’m starting to have dreams that have some kind of COVID-19 element.  Last night I had a dream in which one of the people in the background was wearing a blue paper coronavirus mask — certainly something that would not have been part of any dream I would have before March 2020 — and I’ve also had a dream where my dream self was troubled to see that there were discarded coronavirus masks on a roadway as I walked past.

So far, at least, I haven’t had any coronavirus embarrassment or anxiety-type dreams, where I’ve humiliatingly shown up for some important event without a mask, or in my dream I’m horribly late for something because I stupidly put off getting a mask and now I can’t find one anywhere.  I imagine it’s just a matter of time before those kinds of dreams get worked into the nightly mix.  

And that’s probably the most disturbing part of all of this.  The coronavirus period has gone on long enough to work its way into our subconscious brains.  If, like me, you still have dreams from time to time about missing an important exam — decades after your last exam ever occurred — you have to wonder:  are we going to be haunted by periodic COVID-19 dreams for the rest of our lives?  We may sincerely hope that a successful vaccine is developed, “herd immunity” is achieved, and the world returns to “normal” — but come night-time our subconscious brains may continue to give us a dose of the topsy-turvy coronavirus world of 2020 whether we like it or not.   

Masked Driving

We took a long drive this week.  It was our first extended road trip in a while, but it also was interesting in other ways as well.  In fact, I would say it was one of the more memorable drives I’ve ever taken.

b3effd_ltptolls020411It’s as if the country is reawakening from a long sleep.  Some people are up and wide awake, some are groggy from the long slumber, and some are still snoring.  As a result, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as you would normally expect on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend.  In the early morning hours in Ohio, we saw lots of trucks on the road — a good sign, incidentally, for a resurgence in the nation’s economy — but virtually no cars.  By mid-morning, as we rolled through northern Pennsylvania on I-80, the trucks still dominated the road and cars remained few and far between.  The traffic picked up as we skirted New York City and Boston, but we didn’t hit any stoppages, even with lots of road construction.  As a result, we made excellent time.

The lack of traffic is one reason why the Cannonball Run record — the wholly illegal effort to make the fastest drive from the Red Ball garage in New York City to the Portofini Inn in Redondo Beach, California — has been broken repeatedly during this national shutdown period.  The new record now stands at less than 26 hours, which is mind-boggling and makes you wonder about the top speed reached as the cars zipped through the wide-open western states.

But the lack of traffic wasn’t the only reminder of the coronavirus.  As has now become the norm, for me at least, once you are out of your personal space you become acutely conscious of every common surface you touch.  Refueling means touching buttons on the gas pump and holding the nozzle.  You don your mask as you enter gas stations — some stations have signs saying that masks are mandatory — and think about the safest way to open the bathroom door, flip up the toilet seat, and flush the commode if you need to use the facilities.  (Your prim and proper grandmother was never more worried about the cleanliness of rest stops than you are right now.)  At one stop, as I stood masked and trying to do my 20 seconds of vigorous, soapy hand-washing, a trucker stood next to me and brushed his teeth, which was a bit unnerving.

You put your mask on, again, as you pay at toll booths, which is probably the best argument ever for getting EZ Pass and just rolling on through.  Every toll booth worker was wearing masks and gloves, and at the I-84 toll booth in New York City the attendant applied some kind of disinfectant to the dollar that I handed her.  It makes me wonder if COVID-19 will drive another nail in the coffin of cash and spur faster adoption of contactless payment card technology.  For that matter, it makes me wonder if toll booths where you can actually use the nation’s currency also aren’t going to be around for long.

In all, a very memorable trip.  The coronavirus continues to affect just about everything.

The Mask Factor

I realized the other day, as I was checking my messages while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, that my iPhone facial recognition software doesn’t work when I’m wearing one of my coronavirus masks.  Like a character in a Lone Ranger TV show, the phone was left dumbfounded and asking:  “Who was that masked man?”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  The mask covers a significant portion of your face, including some noteworthy recognition-triggering features — namely, your nose and your mouth.  Our identification of a person’s face is based on the eyes, nose, and mouth working in combination, and the masks are covering up two of those three features.  We’ve been trained since birth to pay careful attention to the facial features of the people we talk to and notice any changes.  And think about how much attention you pay to the mouth, in particular, as you interact with people.  Are they smiling?  Frowning?  Grimacing?  Does the combination of the mouth and eyes indicate that they’re angry?

I thought about the blocking effect of the mask when I went to get a haircut yesterday.  Both my stylist and I were masked — of course — after I had gone through a doorway vetting procedure that included having my temperature taken and answering some COVID-19 exposure questions.  As we talked during the happy haircut, she mentioned that she was trying to be more expressive with her eyes, because people couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or not.  It was true, and I realized that she also couldn’t see my smile.  After that, I tried to be more expressive with my eyes and eyebrows, but the eyebrows especially are not designed for nuanced non-verbal cues.  You’ve got knitted eyebrows, and raised eyebrows, and that’s about it.  Trying to communicate much with your eyebrows is like mugging for a camera.

Masks definitely change things, but we’re just going to have to get used to them because they are going to be a requirement for a while.  I’m going to have to work on adding some additional, unmistakable eye and eyebrow communication techniques to my facial repertoire.

And I guess Apple is going to need to come up with a masked and an unmasked version of the facial recognition software.

In A Mask, No One Can See You Scowl

Obviously, you see a lot more masks around now.  People are ordering masks, making masks, and talking about masks — a lot.  In Ohio, there has been a lot of chatter about masks over the last 24 hours because Governor DeWine’s administration seems to be revisiting precisely who should be required to wear a mask, and when, when businesses reopen.  Kish and I have laid in a supply of cloth masks and disposable paper masks to meet our masking needs once the masking guidance is settled.

2020_4largeimg_183406303So far, I haven’t been in an enclosed structure other than our house since before the guidance on masks started to change.  You will recall that, initially, health authorities took the position that masks weren’t needed and actually might be counterproductive, because donning and doffing a mask might cause you to touch your face, which was totally discouraged.  Then the prevailing view changed, and masks became recommended.  Now, in at least some instances and for some people, they apparently are going to be required when you are in a structure.

So far as I can tell, however, there is no requirement that you wear a mask if you just go outside for a walk.  I don’t wear one for that purpose, and most people I’ve seen around German Village don’t seem to do so, either.  I’m not aware of any studies or medical information indicating that, if you maintain proper social distancing when you are out in the open — and I do — you are at risk of contracting coronavirus, or communicating coronavirus to others.  And a mask really interferes with one of the key elements of a walk, which is to breathe in some deep gulps of fresh air while you are out stretching those atrophied muscles and appreciating nature.

Nevertheless, some people now seem to be arguing that everyone should be required to wear a mask when they exit their front door.  That’s because the whole mask/no mask issue plays into the busybody gene that those people have in abundance.  They decide to do something, and because they do it they think everyone else should be required to do it, too — and you’re a hopeless idiot and horrible person if you don’t.  And they will gladly share their opinion with you, in stern and certain terms.  But just because they conclude that they want to be masked when outdoors doesn’t mean I must follow their lead.  In our land of liberty, you have the right to wear a mask outside if you choose, and I have a right to go maskless — at least, until our elected representatives instruct to the contrary.  That hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve heard of some busybodies taking people to task for walking, jogging, or biking without masks.  That hasn’t happened to me, yet, and if it does I’m just going to ignore it.  The masked among us can judge us all they want, but they need to remember that when they’re wearing a mask we can’t see them scowl.  And that mask pretty much muffles their hectoring comments, too.

A Mask Of My Own

I’ve written before about Handy Heidi — my lovely and talented sister-in-law — and her magic paint brush.  Her skills extend beyond painting, however, to also include sewing.  And in yesterday’s mail I received the latest fruits of her labors:  my very own coronavirus mask, courtesy of Handy Heidi’s magic sewing machine.  Thanks, Heidi!

It’s a sturdy mask, in suitably sober colors, as befits its sober purpose.  I know that some people have opted for more brightly colored masks, but that’s not where my head is at, frankly.  If I need to wear a mask on my walk to work or around the office, I don’t want it to look like I’m celebrating.  And the black on one side, brown on the other side color scheme will match my boring lawyer suits.

I’m not keen on wearing a mask, but if that’s what it takes to open Ohio and America for work again, I’m all for it.