Finding Your Place on the Spectrum
There are many fine lines that we have to carefully navigate. The fine line between assertiveness and aggression. The fine line between speaking one’s mind and respecting “political correctness.” And now, due to the Coronavirus and our valid concerns on how to best contain and defeat it, the entire world is walking with various degrees the fine line between security and independence.
Nations look at the situation through their unique cultural lenses, staking their positions in accordance with their national characters and available medical information. Individuals, too, find their comfort levels by balancing past experience with new information, emotional fears with confidence in authority figures, and their need for security vs. personal independence.
Arguably, the notion of security vs. independence can be defined on a political level: government providing a certain level of security (salary, health benefits, safety), as opposed to individualism and self-reliance. Politics is certainly weighing in on how best to manage this pandemic, with face masks (of all things!) emerging as the predominant symbol of this debate. People are sizing one another up rather quickly and jumping to conclusions based on the wearing or absence of the face mask, whether they’re worn while grocery shopping, walking in the neighborhood, or pumping gas. The subject is hard to avoid while living and working in a major city like Atlanta.
Recently, my family and I were able to get away for a few days at the beach. It felt as if we had been given a pass to go on leave from military duty, to walk the hallways at school during classroom hours, to do something we normally wouldn’t have been allowed to enjoy. We were so glad to be able to celebrate our son’s college graduation in some small way! Due to Coronavirus, he had lost both his graduation ceremonies and a long-promised special family vacation. We couldn’t wait, not just for the much-needed change of scenery (we love our house, but enough is enough), but to see how far we could stretch our legs along the miles-long sandy beach and just get out of the pandemic mindset.
Right away, I was struck by the wide-ranging attitudes on face masks by both locals and visitors. The locals, who’d been previously terrified at the prospect of losing much-needed business during their peak summer months, were delighted and relieved to see so many people flocking to their community. Their local government had lifted its ban on short-term rentals and business operations only a few weeks earlier. Almost all stores and restaurants were open, though with restrictions in place. The locals wore face masks while working at the grocery stores, restaurants, and in some of the shores. They followed the social distancing guidelines: Grocery stores managed the numbers of shoppers in the grocery stores and placed six foot markers in the check-out lines to delineate how far apart people should stand. Most restaurants offered take-out service only, though quite a few had expanded outside seating, and a handful offered limited inside seating. Most shops were open (I saw just one with a sign saying that it was open only by appointment), but they had varying requirements on the allowed number of shoppers in the store at any one time, wearing of masks, and use of hand sanitizer.
Most visitors seemed very happy to be going about their days without masks, though I saw a preponderance of people wearing them in the grocery stores, far more than in any other place. Along with the masks was careful avoidance of fellow shoppers, caution in handling packaging, and methodical progression through the grocery aisles. It looked like a scene from any grocery store back home in Atlanta. But it was in stark contrast to visitor behavior everywhere else on the island.
It was especially striking in one particularly large shopping district bordering a marina. I was amazed to see that the restaurants were filled to their social distancing-allowed capacities and that no one was wearing a mask. Did we enter an alternate universe where the pandemic had never happened? All around, not a mask could be seen - not in the shops, on the boats, or along the waterfront. OK, there was ONE shop that offered hand sanitizer and the older ladies behind the counter wore masks and seemed very nervous, but they tended to discourage shoppers with their worry and so were left alone. Which may have been what they wanted, though not what the shop owners had intended.
The beaches were another area almost totally devoid of masks. Not terribly surprising. A few isolated individuals wore them or had them tucked under their chins, but they just looked out of place and a bit odd. People still gave each other plenty of distancing in setting up their beach umbrellas and chairs and in passing one another as they walked along the beach.
I heard many visitors telling each other that they preferred deciding for themselves which risks to take, rather than following a litany of government rules designed to provide for their safety. I imagine that the beach visitors were a self-selected lot anyways; those who were more fearful or cautious of spreading/contracting Coronavirus stayed at home during the holiday weekend.
The push-pull between groups who follow the government mandates and those who determine their personal risk levels will continue on for some time, but I predict pandemic masks will be a hot Halloween costume item, maybe not this year, but certainly in ones to come. And decades from now, when the kids who haven’t been born yet throw a “20’s theme” party, you can be sure that the masks will come out. For now, they’re the signature emblem of our troubled times.