Thursday, April 1, 2021

A Great Hamburger, with a Smile

The United States rapidly closures in on herd ("community") immunity to SARS-CoV-2. The scientific news continues to be positive, with increasing access to inoculation, recent revelations regarding the efficacy of interferon (Catch a Cold, 2021), and decreasing rates of death. Several authors have recently provided their thoughts stimulated by the perception of the one-year anniversary of COVID, and its impact on their business, industry, etc.

Certainly, March 2020 brought recognition of Covid-19 risks. Reactions began in earnest through last March and April; confusion among the scientific community, exacerbated public sentiment, curiosity, stress, and questions. We lived through much over the last 12 months. Some of us more comfortably than others; the simple truth is that some people are less prepared for such a situation vocationally, logistically, economically, emotionally, and more. We are a diverse people confronting a multi-faceted challenge.  

Last week, I found myself in a restaurant (a business focused on the preparation and serving of food, you may remember them). The patrons and staff shared a common feature of some curiosity. Below their eyes, where one has become accustomed to seeing swaths of fabric or paper, each of these folks exhibited a proboscis and mouth. There was a patent display of abounding smiles. 

The food was delivered on china plates, and various condiments were readily available on each table. The menu contained no caution regarding menu limitations, and those menus were not specially-printed, one-use disposables. In a word, it was somewhat surreal. Customers were using a fountain to refill their own drinks. 

It caused me to reflect this morning on the last 12 months. Specifically, images of various action and reaction. I find myself wondering if I will live to see these images repeated.

I recall the prescience I somehow had. In January 2020 while stocking up on various commodities (in a hurricane-type mindset). A few of us stocked up on non-perishable food and paper supplies. Some of our fellow travelers were openly mocking, and disdainful of those preparing. In the later months of summer, I wondered how those disdainful folks faired. 

I recall the March 2020 email notification that schools would briefly sequester, spring breaks would be extended, and the curve would be flattened. The sentiment then predicted a two week pause to control this thing. Shortly thereafter, on a trip to Pensacola Beach for carry-out, I recall parking lots jammed with vehicles. These largely, as is normal in this part of Florida, bore the license plates of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Indiana, and more. The tourism early last spring was not subdued. 

Later in the spring, as this pandemic wore on, I recall traveling to Mobile Alabama. Heading west on I-10, I witnessed and exceptionally long line of vehicles queued to enter the eastbound weigh station. Upon returning to Florida, I found myself in that line. Each car was stopped. We were questioned by health officials regarding our point of origin, potential exposures, and experience of symptoms. Florida was protecting its borders. There was effort to keep those from heavily impacted states from travelling here to convalesce. The news then was full of stories about hospitals and their challenges. We were just returning to delivery of some medical care

I recall grocery shopping in the summer. Various shelves were empty (paper, cleaning supplies, various meet). I recall the signs setting limits for how many of particular items one person might purchase. On one trip, I was amused by a family of five that included a toddler no more than three years old. Each dutifully carried a basket with various items. I overheard one parent explained to the toddler, “I will carry it for now, but when we get up front you have to carry it to the register." I wondered if that child will remember that shopping trip well enough to relate it to her/his grandchildren in 70 years?

On another shopping trip, I selected items from shelves marked with signs that read “you may only purchase one of each item.“ I dutifully selected my items. At the check-out, I was accosted by an irate store employee who berated me for purchasing two distinct name-brand cleaners. She has loudly explained to me that I could "only buy one of each." She loudly complained that I really should "read the signs." When I explained that I had one Lysol cleaner, and one Clorox cleaner, as in "one of each" as both she and the sign stated, she loudly exclaimed that I obviously did not know what “each" means. I pitied her. I can only imagine the stress that such employees faced.

Throughout the last 12 months, I listened repeatedly to lectures regarding the efficacy of facemasks, and necessity that I wear one. I also listened to contrary lectures regarding my use of masks, and the lack of necessity for them. If I had been told in 2019 that Americans would wear masks, I would’ve been doubtful (perhaps even dismissive). Had I been told then that government would attempt to mandate masks, I would have openly scoffed. As a side-note, curiously, during the time that the scientist recommended against masks I cannot recall a shingle government entity threatening to prosecute those who chose such use voluntarily. For following some government recommendations there is recrimination, but not for all?

In the Chinese calendar, years are named. Oddly, 2020 was the year of the rat. I had an engaging conversation late in 2020 in which our debate raged as to what label would best define that year, with several suggesting the “year of COVID.” Another conversant humorously suggested instead the "year of plexiglass." 

It was mid summer 2020 that high-end priced plexiglass began appearing everywhere. One of the more humorous instances I experienced was a local retailer. While checking out, I was separated from the store clerk by a modest plexiglass shield. The credit terminal was 2 feet down the counter, which is further than I can reach. When I stepped towards the terminal, I was admonished by the individual bagging my groceries, who stepped back two feet to maintain social distance and who stated loudly “there’s no plexiglass between us!“ 

There’s no humor in that, the individual was striving to self-protect, was scared, and I respect that. However, having stepped back to the plexiglass portion of the counter, it occurred to me that one foot behind me stood the cashier for the next checkout lane. This employee who was separated from her customers by similar plexiglass stood a foot from me, separated by none. The incongruity of this was humorous and curious. I mentioned it to a store manager on a later visit. 

That same retailer evolved through no masks, encouraged masks, mandatory masks, recommended masks, and now seems ambivalent at best. That retailer evolved from no directions to one-way aisles, "stand here" floor markers, and shopping monitors back to shopping at will. That retailer evolved through constant cart washing, persistent store cleaning, and employees clad in goggles and gloves. It was a wild ride for some striving to meet the challenges in both safety and public perception. 

The summer 2020 news cycle will remain in my memory. Our leaders dire warnings encouraging our social distancing, encouraging our isolation, and decrying our gathering was starkly contrasted by the acquiescence in and even encouragement of riots, looting, and lawlessness. When spring 2021 brought images of spring break, the destruction, the anti-authority, and the crime, I wondered if we find ourselves on the brink of a "new normal" regarding our personal and collective safety? Has the COVID changed our national DNA as regards public safety, the law, and leadership? Are we permanently changed?

Fall brought fear and dire warnings. The holiday season would be exceptionally dangerous. Simple family gatherings would be super- spreader events. Many continued to listen to the same scientist whose prior prognostications vacillated on subjects such as masks, and vaccines. How can someone be spectacularly wrong so often and still be listened to? And, Christmas came and went. Our greatest gift was the provisional approval of vaccinations (the ones that cannot be developed in less than 18 months). As I received my inoculation, I laughed remembering their mocking assurances last April that a vaccine within a year was impossible. 

The Super Bowl came to Florida in 2021. I will forever remember the prognostications of dire consequences. There was apparently a football game (I didn't watch). There was apparently not the predicted Armageddon outcome thereafter. Some experts predict Florida will reach "herd immunity" by summer, others believe it is possible sooner. Others are more skeptical, some are defeatist, and others more optimistic. 

Very recently, on a similar shopping trip, I encountered an ultra-safe individual clad in facemask, face shield, and bright purple latex gloves. As we went about our shopping, I ran into her on three occasions. On two of those occasions I saw her place her gloved hand inside of her face shield and adjust her face mask. I was left with the distinct impression the mask was irritating. 

Having completed my purchases, I encountered her again in the parking lot. She had loaded her groceries, and was backing out of her space (I paused as she was driving with that face shield and I worried about being backed over). She was still clad in the bright purple surgical gloves. I wondered if she believed gloves offered some antiseptic benefit? It occurred to me that any germ she encountered in the store might as easily stick to those gloves as to her skin. I wondered if such a germ could not as easily transmit from the gloves to her face, or even the steering wheel of her vehicle. Hopefully, the purple gloves made her feel safe. 

And finally, I return to that dinner last week served on reusable plates, ordered from normal menus, and delivered by smiling wait staff, sans-masks. I want to believe that the COVID pandemic draws to a close, at least in my little corner of the world. I want to revel in the scientific triumph that was recently injected into my arm. I want to believe that as individuals and a Worker’s Compensation community, we have learned and grown from this experience. I want to hope that no such future experience will so challenge us. I want to believe in the rule of law, the faith of our leadership, and the strength of our society. But, I have doubts. 

Perhaps I might live to share these experiences with my grandchildren. With time, possibly my memory of 2020 will fade. But, maybe these lessons will return to the fore in some future  challenges. Some may look back on 2020 for lessons and guidance one day. Will we all remain at each other’s throats? Will violence in our streets remain the societal norm? Or, can some semblance of normalcy return to our collectivity? 

I know this for sure, that hamburger and onion rings last week was amongst the best I’ve ever had. Whether that was the food or the environment, I may never know. If I forget the rest of this, I suspect that meal will stick with me for a long time, as will the smile with which it was delivered.