Emma’s 8th grade graduation was the first largish gathering we’ve attended since February. It was limited to the 10 graduates and their immediate families (nine physically attended, and one participated virtually). The families ranged in size from two (ours) to around ten. We were outside, in seating areas that were spread out across a courtyard, and the rule was that everyone would wear masks. Efforts were made to keep things as sanitized as possible for the graduates; each of the kids got their own microphone cover with orders not to destroy them before they gave their speeches. Everything was wiped down before and after each of the kids made their speeches and unlocked and walked through the door that symbolized their passage to the next stage of life. We were so happy the school could make this happen, because the kids had been looking forward to it for so long, but we also didn’t want people to get sick. The information on the safety measures the head of the school sent out ahead of time made me feel like attending would be OK, and I really appreciated the thought she and the teachers had put into it.
What I noticed was that maybe as many as a quarter of those present did not wear masks, or they arrived with masks but took them off when they sat down and didn’t put them back on. More people took their masks off as the event proceeded; it was a hot, dry day thanks to the Santa Ana winds, and people were sweating. Personal comfort took priority over public health. This is the reality of our society, where individualism and freedom are supreme and there is little sense of public health or care. A revolt against masks is happening in California, but it doesn’t mean active rebellion to take your mask off on a hot day when you are simply not used to wearing one. It just means that you are uncomfortable and removing the source of discomfort matters more than anything else.
From my perspective, it was interesting to see who felt immortal under the circumstances (the pater familias in some cases, but not only them). I heard a man complaining about how the mask didn’t work well with his beard, so he held it in his hand instead of covering his face. I could imagine – there is no way to keep a seal against your face with a beard, but you could still prevent most of your droplets from traveling out and hitting other people by covering your mouth. A large family sat down near me and most of them were not wearing masks or took their masks off shortly after arriving. I don’t know what their story was, but they way they moved around taking photos after the ceremony made me want to keep my distance anyway.
What it meant for me and Emma was that we did not stay long afterwards. We got some quick photos and had brief conversations with a couple of teachers and the head of Emma’s school, and then we left. I had a few regrets about leaving so quickly. On the way to the car, I thought about going back and at least saying goodbye to more people. It was our last official event at the school, and maybe the last time we would see some of those kids and their parents, many of whom we’ve known for years. But I also simply do not want to get sick, and I do not feel safe around groups of people who are not making a visible effort to stay safe themselves. I did not feel particularly safe there. I also didn’t feel like everyone was showing adequate concern for the health of other people, though certainly some were. Again, this is the reality of our society.
It would have been so easy to feel like everything was OK; this is a close-knit community we’ve been part of for seven years now. Emma feels like the school is her second home; the teachers, kids, and parents part of her extended family. It was tempting to throw caution to the hot, dry Santa Ana winds and chat with everyone one last time. But the COVID-19 virus is every bit as real as our emotional connection to the school, and we really had no way of knowing how careful the other families have been.
It’s gotten me thinking about the months ahead, as we wait to go back to Mongolia. ( At least, I hope we can go back!) It would be nice to live a “normal” life (though the traffic getting bad again is sad). It would be nice to hang out with people and go places again as if everything were OK. But it’s not OK. From all signs, the number of COVID-19 cases in my area are still rising. The number of cases nationwide are increasing as well. This shows no signs of stopping. Many more people are dying and will die. As much as we want this to be over, it isn’t.
As we learn to live with this virus in our midst, that includes deciding, with incomplete and inconsistent guidance from public authorities and expert organizations, what feels safe and what doesn’t. Where to go and where to stay away from. Who to meet and who to avoid. I haven’t participated in any Black Lives Matters marches yet, because while I care deeply about this and believe that our society needs to change drastically, I do not have enough confidence to be in large crowds. And yes, this is white privilege. This is exactly what white privilege looks like. I have work that I can do from home. I have been able to effectively isolate myself and Emma as much as possible, when many people of color have no such ability. The workers who came to my house to paint it and carpet it were all “Hispanic or Latino” as we call it on the US census. As were our movers. A lot of the contractors have been as well. And so far, none of them have worn masks. The only mask-wearing worker who came by was a black man working for the termite company; his white partner didn’t wear a mask. I thought about this a lot, one wearing a mask and one not, as they worked together the entire day, sat in the truck together, and were generally exposed to each other and whomever they had to interact with. How do you keep healthy under those circumstances?
This virus has starkly revealed the inequalities of our society, who has to put their bodies and lives on the line so that they can survive and others can make their millions. (Jeff Bezos, I’m looking at you. But you’re certainly not alone.) There has been a lot of pressure to “open the economy,” from workers who have lost their jobs and don’t know how they will put food on the table to investors who are concerned about continuing to grow their fortunes. The government is penalizing people who remain concerned about their health. Historical trends in access to healthcare and healthy lifestyles have become visible in the grim reality of death rates, as Native Americans and African Americans have suffered more than white Americans. And of course the virus has been politicized, as has mask-wearing and other public health measures.
Here in northern coastal San Diego County, we are in a bubble. It’s easy for people to feel safe here. The concerns of the rest of the world, even the rest of the county, are largely invisible in this affluent enclave. The regular report from the Carlsbad city manager that I get in my email inbox has lately been mostly upbeat and positive about businesses reopening. There’s a reminder about personal measures to take as well:
- Limit your exposure to people you don’t live with
- Stay home if you’re sick
- Cover your face when you’re around other people so you don’t inadvertently put droplets of virus into the air where others could breathe them in
- Stay 6 feet away from others
- Wash your hands thoroughly and often
- Don’t touch your face
The exhortation to “cover your face” is the longest and most detailed of the list, so probably the easiest to skip over. The others by now are a familiar litany to people who have been paying attention. “So you don’t inadvertently put droplets of virus into the air where others can breathe them in” is needlessly wordy and stilted and, quite frankly, easy to make fun of.
But it’s also very important. Despite initial confusion about masks exacerbated by our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a lot of studies have shown the effectiveness of wearing masks to prevent the spread of illness. As far as COVID-19 goes, evidence shows that because of the way the virus is transmitted, infected people and uninfected people should both wear masks to minimize the rate of infection. And because the virus can be spread by people who don’t show symptoms, wearing a mask is a simple precautionary measure you can take, because you may have the virus and not be aware that you do. You may be making others sick without being aware that you are. Wearing a mask has been linked to everything from communism to fascism by people who don’t want to do it, but the simple truth is, it signals a concern for other people’s wellbeing. Wearing a mask says, “I don’t want to risk making you sick.”
It doesn’t mean that people who don’t wear masks are saying, “I want to make you sick,” though that is potentially what they are doing. There are several reasons people don’t wear masks, ranging from callous assertions of individual liberty to bad information about the “dangers” of covering your face. And Americans are famous for resisting safety precautions–remember the war against seat belts, anyone? But what it means for people like me, who are genuinely concerned about getting this virus, is that our movements and activities will remain curtailed as long as other people do not wear masks, physically distance themselves, and take other basic precautions. Emma and I are laying low anyway, because I don’t want catching the virus to ruin our chances of going back to Mongolia. And as a solo parent with a limited support system, getting sick would be catastrophic for my family.
I’m not saying I won’t get out of the house at all. Emma has already gotten together with a handful of friends, and I have, too. But it’s likely we’ll keep it at that for the foreseeable future. There are a few people we’ve seen who I believe are being as careful as we are. And that’s probably the best we can do. Life will go on, with or without effective cures or a vaccine, and we need to learn to live with this virus, and with whatever others crop up. And maybe more of a public health ethos will emerge from all of this, as people begin to understand that ideology won’t make them immune or immortal as long as this virus continues working its way through the US and around the world.