A couple of weeks ago, I finally broke my self-imposed quasi-quarantine and went out into Covid’s theme park, Florida. I know, it’s December 2021, and most people gave up on maximal Covid-19 protections some time ago. My wife has to travel on the subway to get to her office, and my kids—9 and 6 and recently vaccinated—have had to get on buses to go to school for a semester now. But since February 2020, I could have been called Elie Dickenson. I’ve been privileged to keep my job writing things on the Internet from the safety of my home office while leaning into my nascent agoraphobia. Pretty much, the only times I’ve been out over the past two years are when I’ve needed to get vaccines or chauffeur my family to medical appointments.
But that ended for me for the same reasons it ends for most people: work. Most office workers were forced back into the office over the summer; most service workers were forced back during the dark days of 2020, either to earn a living or to keep serving the people who demand to be served; and most essential workers never had the option of staying at home in the first place. In my case, I had to go to a gig in Florida, thereby experiencing what most of America has been dealing with all this time.
I thought my entry into Covid America would mostly be as an explorer. I imagined I’d be like an astronaut: cataloging the dangers of strange bodies from the protection of my hermetically sealed space suit. I didn’t and couldn’t anticipate how quickly and thoroughly society’s acceptance of virus risk would permeate my own thinking and decisions. I went from an astronaut to an anthropologist in about a day. By the end of my trip, I was basically Jane Goodall, living in the Covid mist, merely hoping not to get sick.
But first there was the explorer phase: I left my home and immediately felt like a stranger in a strange land.
The first curiosity I encountered, of course, was how other people wear masks. Now, even though I’ve been a borderline recluse doesn’t mean I haven’t been paying attention. I get that people often don’t wear their masks properly, letting it slip under their noses like a plumber whose jeans refuse to stay up. I get that people who have had to go out a lot have seen this a lot already. But nothing can really prepare you for being out in public and watching people willfully fail to use the ancient technology of cloth correctly.
Once I entered John F. Kennedy International Airport, I was bombarded by noses. Do they not understand how masks work? Or how viruses work? Or both? Do they also walk around brandishing an umbrella as a forward shield and wonder why your head gets wet? How can we be two years into this thing and still have people who don’t know how to wear a mask? How can we still have people wear their masks improperly on purpose? How can this be our society right now?
Mask misuse continued on the plane, of course. The flight attendants reminded passengers that they had to wear their masks over both their mouths and noses, but some people refused to listen. One guy a couple of rows behind me had to be repeatedly reminded to pull his mask up. I noticed because one of the flight attendants was pregnant and this freaking jerk kept pulling down his mask and making this lady waddle over to him to remind him how rules work.
Not that masking on the plane really mattered, because people could take their masks off while they were eating or drinking. I spied one man who nursed a beer for an hour and a half, just to avoid having to put his mask back on. The most frustrating thing about proper mask use is that the point is to protect other people from your potential diseases. So I was sitting there, not drinking beer, protecting the beer guy, but that guy couldn’t be bothered to return the favor.
Once we landed in DeSantis-ville, mask etiquette completely disappeared. One guy from my flight hit the bathroom, ripped off his mask, and proclaimed, “Free at last, fuck the mask!” He was a Black guy, so he was merely cheapening his own history instead of appropriating it, but there you have it.
I was still reeling from Martin Luther Mouthbreather when I encountered the first direct challenge to my views of personal protection and caution. Somebody at baggage claim recognized me from television and asked if they could take a selfie. “Sure,” I said, but as we huddled up, she asked me to pull down my mask so people would know it was me. I visibly balked, but then she said, “I’m vaccinated.”
Here’s the thing: If I’m vaccinated and she’s vaccinated, then we should probably be okay (well, at least before Omicron). Moreover, if she’s going to take her mask off anyway, then my getting close enough to take a selfie obviates my mask—which again I’m wearing for her protection more than my own. It really shouldn’t be a big deal to pull down my mask for a second to snap a photo.
Unless I’m about to be one of the “breakthrough” cases we hear so much but know so little about. Unless my vaccine and booster are ineffective against the Omicron variant. Unless she’s lying and hasn’t been vaccinated at all. In that moment, I was brought back to my ’90s-era sex-education lectures where some woman on a video would say, “When a person really doesn’t want to wear a condom, that’s when you should be insistent that they do.”
The woman was still looking at me, by the way, while my mind raced through all these possibilities. A decision needed to be made. But then I considered everything I had already experienced that day: the nose people, the beer people, and I thought to myself, “Welp, if God wants me to get it, it’s going to happen sooner or later.” I pulled down my mask and she snapped the photo.
Yup, I was in Florida for all of 10 minutes before I mentally gave up on working out the “science” and decided to let Jesus take the wheel, before I despaired at managing risk in a rational, probability-based way and put my health in the hands of fate, karma, Thetans, and the gods of Pfizer and Moderna. I swear, if I had stayed there any longer, I’d be watching high school football and plannng a coup.
The way risk begets more risk was the part of the American Covid response that I never quite understood until I was forced out of my zones of comfort and control. Doing one foolish thing doesn’t make the next thing less foolish, but it does make it feel no more foolish than the last dumb thing you did. For instance, after going to dinner in a restaurant with strangers, it doesn’t feel so outrageous to go to a bar. Once you share a microphone at a conference, it doesn’t feel so outrageous to share a hug. Once you take one selfie with your mask off, you don’t have an existential crisis the next time someone asks for a selfie.
Which is how I ended up at a karaoke bar in Somewheres, Fla., belting out Bobby Brown songs as an unmasked singer. See, I didn’t decide to be stupid all at once—I got there by turns. First, I shared a mic with colleagues I knew to be vaccinated at a conference, then with the general public I believed to be vaccinated when they asked questions. Then I had a drink with those people. Then the bar closed and, well, one sees where this is going. By the time I was asking the karaoke MC if he’d been vaccinated (he said “yes,” of course, but what was he gonna say? “No, this is all incredibly stupid. You’re gonna die”?) I realized that I had become one of those “the vaccine makes me bulletproof” people, and thrown all other cautions to the wind. I don’t need permission, make my own decisions, that’s my prerogative.
…So when I got home, my wife quarantined me in my bedroom for four days. My own children, independently and without prompting, stayed six feet away from me, didn’t let me hug them, and only spoke to me with their masks on (masks which they know to use to cover their noses, by the way). I’ve been back a week and, as of this writing, do not have Covid-19. The vaccines, it would seem, held up.
I’m thankful that Florida didn’t follow me home. I trust the vaccines, but I trust the people who can operate a mask at least as well as my 6-year-old even more. I’m in awe of the millions of people, like my wife, who brave these dangers every day, even amid the uncertainty of the Omicron variant and the constant threat of sharing space with unvaccinated people.
For my part, it feels good to be back in my little bubble. Since I evidently don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut, I’m happy to go back to being an astronomer: I’d rather see the dangers than experience them.