On a recent Saturday, a task took Julie and me away from Indianapolis, out of our county, to a rural area of Indiana. We went from where facial coverings are required to where they are not.
We drove far enough that we needed to make a stop. As we proceeded through a village, we spied a convenience store that looked nice enough to have clean restrooms. Automatically, we covered our faces before leaving our car.
In the store, we greeted the young man at the cash register. He stood behind plexiglass. He was unmasked. After we used the bathrooms and were looking for a snack, the fellow eagerly made suggestions of some local favorites. The woman at the food counter, also unmasked, chimed in.
Julie and I took them up on suggestions. We were not disappointed.
The two employees continued to show their friendly nature and our conversation lasted past our transaction at the cash register. Though we kept our distance, several things went through my mind. First, that when scanning our purchases the guy touched them. Second, that because they both were unmasked the air from their mouths could make it to us, and the woman’s onto the food she was preparing.
I recalled the saying: my mask protects you, and your mask protects me.
While in the store, a man came in. Unmasked. Another entered. Unmasked. A woman entered unmasked, but a few steps in she put one on.
I’m not hyper-sensitive. I’m also not naive. None of this freaked me out, but it stayed on my mind.
At our destination, we met two men. Neither wore a mask. While we were there, a number of people filtered in and out. None were masked.
We remained outside for all but a few minutes. We kept our distance.
I asked how bad the virus has been in this county. I’ve actively monitored statistics and knew there were a few counties in Indiana that didn’t have their first COVID-19 death until late last year, and still have had few, and fewer cases percentage-of-population-wise. Because of the lack of masking I’d witnessed, I thought this county might be one of them.
I was surprised when the man told me that they’ve been hit about as hard as anywhere. He told of folks he knows who’ve gotten really sick, and of one co-worker who has died.
A few days later, we had a chance to have our daughter, her fiancé, and our grandkids over for dinner. They take great care with the pandemic. We consider each other safe to be around.
I was texting about their coming over on Wednesday when it occurred to me that we needed to allow at least five days since our Saturday potential exposures. We held off seeing them until Friday.
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A year ago, masking up was as alien an idea as wearing a seatbelt was when I started driving in the 1970s.
Early in the pandemic, we heaved a collective sigh of relief when we were told that it wasn’t necessary to cover our faces. At the time, I cringed at the thought of having to wear a mask whenever going to a store.
By summer, in many places—including the county in which I live—required the covering of faces when out in public.
And, by autumn, we had mostly fallen into a routine: keep masks by our car keys and wallet, in the car, our coat—without thinking, popping one on when leaving our car.
The biggest challenge has been at church. Singing hymns, one draws in far more air than when speaking. My mask sucked onto my mouth. I corrected the problem enough to relieve most of the discomfort. Tying it tighter keeps the cloth from moving as much.
A few weeks before masks were mandated in our county, I took to wearing one. Immediately, I noticed those with uncovered faces. I don’t rudely go up to strangers and question them, so I only wondered about it.
Now, each store has a sign at the door, informing us that masks are mandatory.
A few days ago, while in a grocery store I walked by a woman who did not have one on. I wanted to ask her about it. Is she not able to wear one for a medical reason, or has she had COVID-19 and feels she’s safe, or been vaccinated? If any of these, how do the rest of us know?
I wish we’d wear informative stickers for every occasion.
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In the 1980s, when wearing a seatbelt became law, it took a bit to get used to putting it on every time. At first, it seemed a nuisance. Soon, we were used to it. And buckling up probably became automatic before we would have guessed. And then we finally recognized we are safer wearing one than not.
And so it has gone with covering one’s face—or, at least, it has for me. And quickly noticing when others don’t. And wondering why. And, more than anything, wishing they would, believing we are safer with them on.
With seatbelts, when we remove ours it means we’ve reached our destination. How sweet it will be when we do the same with our masks.
We’ll know we’ve arrived.