On the evening of Friday, March 13, 2020, I drove to Berwyn, Illinois to meet up with a friend of mine. We started with supper at Capri Ristorante on Roosevelt Road and then walked next door to Fitzgerald’s to catch an awesome performance by Chicago bluesman Toronzo Cannon. On that day, fourteen new cases of the novel coronavirus called COVID-19 were reported in Illinois, bringing the statewide total to 46. Nobody outside of the healthcare field was masking in public yet, although I’m sure some people had already stopped doing things like going out for dinner and attending night club concerts.
On that day, Governor J.B. Pritzker had announced statewide short-term school and casino closures through March 30. More telling was an announcement that day by the Archdiocese of Chicago that public masses would cease beginning March 14. The thought had crossed my mind that the show might get canceled in view of developing circumstances but Fitzgerald’s stayed open and I was there. The only thing out of the ordinary that I observed, other than there possibly being a smaller crowd than usual (but not small), was the presence of a hand sanitizer station just inside the front door. The show was great and as far as I know, I didn’t get sick from having gone.
Of course we all know that things only escalated from there. The number of confirmed cases rose, deaths began to occur, short-term closures became long-term closures, and were expanded to include more businesses, institutions, and gatherings. By May 1, we had a statewide mask mandate but a number of communities had already put requirements in place by then. Throughout all this came the rise of individualistic rants against forced shut-downs and mandates of any kind, including masking. Somewhere along the line, a minority of the population began to mix politics into the pandemic health crisis. I guess that was inevitable, given the already toxic political culture in which the US finds itself, but I still find it pathetic.
I wish I could find the words to express how much I have come to detest politics, especially party politics. I identify as neither Democrat nor Republican. Can’t get far enough away from either. I think the current Republican president has substantial character flaws. On the other hand, I voted against his Democrat predecessor. Twice. I see the upcoming presidential election pretty much the same way I have viewed the last three: a case of two poor choices who are there not on any absolute merit of their own but by virtue of their perceived chances of beating the opponent. This time around we began with a field of many and if all plays out as well-planned by the two pathetic parties, it will all come down to a choice between two geriatric white guys — dumb and dumber. I hope I have made my political stance clear. Now let’s talk about masking, which is not and should not be political at all.
When it became apparent to me that I would have to wear some sort of face covering to do things like go grocery shopping, I took one look at the mask shortage of the time, as well as the exorbitant prices being charged by anybody who had some to sell, and immediately went to my drawerful of biker bandannas. I discovered that I could tie one of these on bandito style and with a simple bit of folding, have four layers of cotton fabric covering my nose and mouth. Sure, there was a little bit of a struggle to keep it in place, especially if I turned my head to look at something on a store shelf, but I got the hang of it after a while. I even conditioned myself not to be so hyperaware of my breathing while wearing a mask. That took a little effort because at first, it was all but impossible for me to breathe normally while wearing the darned thing. What I found harder to deal with was talking to people — or to be more accurate, listening to them. I have a form of hearing impairment that makes speech recognition challenging and I have come to compensate for that by reading lips. That’s difficult to do when everybody has their mouth covered. But again, I have adapted and life goes on.
My work life never stopped because the industry in which I work was deemed essential by the state. We have followed CDC and state guidelines to the best of our abilities, prohibiting face-to-face visits, both inbound and outbound, permitting remote working when and where feasible, and enforcing a variety of hygiene best practices. I have only worked remotely on a few occasions and even held a few virtual social hours on Friday evenings. But for the most part, I chose to be with the rest of my office team and also to set an example. I am a vice president at a company that employs people to work outdoors in order to provide our essential services. They are required to wear a variety of PPE, including masks when and where required according to state guidelines. In my heart, it just wouldn’t feel right for them to have to be out there, potentially exposed to the virus, while I stayed hidden in my house. We have daily cleaning routines, promote frequent handwashing, and even imported our own hand sanitizer when it was still difficult to obtain. Still, we never mandated mask use in the office and very few people have ever worn one there. We are prepared to strengthen or ease up on our in-office practices as the situation continues to evolve but to date, we have not yet had an employee out with COVID-19 symptoms.
At first it seemed like the COVID curve had begun to flatten but then things began to go the other way. Thanks to a variety of variables, some of which may have been preventable, the pandemic threat appears to be far from over. Misinformation abounds, the finger-pointing never stops, and people continue to die. From all appearances, the need to protect ourselves from this virus is going to continue for a while. Here in Illinois, it hasn’t been as bad as in some other states. More businesses have reopened, with restrictions and precautions in place. While my bandanna seemed fine for the occasional jaunt to the grocery store or gas station convenience mart, I didn’t think it would work so well at my local gym, which has reopened. Besides, all my friends and family members were already using disposable or reusable masks, usually the latter, so I decided to step up without making a huge investment. The option I went with is a mask made by Hanes — that’s right, the underwear people. The product appears to be made out of cotton tee shirt fabric and features three layers of fabric and nonelastic ear loops. They are washable, up to ten times, per the package label, and are sold in packs of ten for $20. For me they work just fine but I couldn’t live with the ear loops so I use a couple of split key rings and an elastic hair loop to convert my mask for behind-the-neck fitment. This set-up works for me.
A few thoughts about masking while doing physical work. Me, I come from a long line of sweaters on my mother’s side. I’ll swear I could break into a sweat just by looking hard at something. Put me on an elliptical trainer or rowing machine and don’t be surprised if it appears to be raining all around me. Now slap three layers of cotton fabric across my mouth and nose… yeah, it gets pretty damp pretty quick. But it still allows enough airflow through the layers so that I don’t feel like I’m being waterboarded.
Another interesting point: The gym I go to requires its staff to wear masks but not its members. This seems odd to me in view of all the other precautions they have in place. Every other cardio machine is taped off, as are the water fountains. Gallons of hand sanitizer are placed throughout the facility, along with bottles of purple disinfectant and rolls of brown paper toweling for wiping down the machines before and after use. Plexiglass shields are set up all along the front counter and the gym is cashless. Yet members don’t have to mask up. I do, my choice. Some others do as well. Most do not. Again, it’s not required. Nobody gives me shit for wearing one and I don’t give anyone shit for not wearing one. I am fairly sure, though, that each of us thinks the other looks goofy by their respective choice.
My dentist office opened up last month. You want to talk about potential exposure to a respiratory virus believed to be largely spread via the droplets they travel on? This profession has it if any does. My last appointment got canceled back in April, when the dental office shut down to all but emergency work. I had no clue how long of a wait I was in for to get back into my six-month routine but I got lucky last week. See, I had put in for some time off well in advance in order to take an annual bike trip with a loved one. That trip didn’t happen and I was plenty down about that but lo and behold, my dentist had a last-minute cancellation and they called me to ask if I could come in. A blessing in disguise? Hey, I stopped believing in accidents years ago.
It’s not like it used to be. I got prescreened the day before. Then per instructions, I phoned from my car when I arrived. Shilpa, my hygienist for the day, was ready for me so I was invited to come in. The empty waiting room only had a few chairs in it, well spaced out, and there was not a magazine in sight. I think those are a thing of the past. Per instructions, I wore my mask into and out of the “op”. PPE-wise, the staff has been wearing masks, gloves, and eye shields for as long as I’ve been going there (now 30+ years). The only difference I saw this time was that Shilpa donned a full face shield instead of the little glasses. Otherwise it was business as usual.
In the end, I’ll gladly don a mask when asked to do so or when I deem it necessary. I’ll also gladly leave it off if it’s not a requirement and I deem it unnecessary. In both cases, I’m not having a cow over the matter but in both cases I am being a law-abiding grownup. I am also very fond of the businesses I choose to support. If all I have to do to keep them open is put on a mask and/or observe distancing guidance, I got no problem with that. All the more so if that’s all I have to do to help keep my fellow man/woman alive and healthy. To me it just makes sense.
One last thought… Despite appearances fed to us by the media, there really isn’t a political argument to be made for either masking or resisting masking. I have a number of ultra-conservative friends who are also immunocompromised and will absolutely tear into anyone who is “too stupid to put a mask on.” They don’t see a political issue; they see a life-and-death issue. I also have a number of ultra-progressive friends who are relatively easygoing about masking up. It’s probably not so much that they don’t care as they aren’t Pharisees. Of course the bigger question that some of you may be asking right now is, how can people on both extremes, political and otherwise, all be friends of mine and true friends at that? Easy. That’s not how I choose my true friends.
Thanks for hanging with me.