By San San Lee
Birds are chirping, the sun is out, and the morning glories are flowering. Cool mornings and warm days – overcast skies as we move from spring to summer. A typical transition of seasons in LA. Every year, this is when my allergies act up, my eyes water, and I sneeze. “Pollution,” attributes my doctor. But, it’s different this year. My symptoms aren’t as bad, probably because the air quality is better. One of the unintended consequences of the stay-at-home order.
The stay-at-home order is easing, too. For some, this is a delightful development. For others, it comes with unease and concern for possible exposure and increased Covid-19 infections. Based on recent polls, a majority of Americans are at least somewhat (if not, very concerned) about the rise of infections as restrictions ease. I, too, am concerned.
While my workload is much less than the pre-pandemic level, I’ve been able to work from home. With the stay-at-home order and its restrictions, and more importantly, the dedication of essential workers, I’ve had the luxury to “hide out” from the virus in the safety of my home. That will change as things open. The reopening does not mean the virus is gone or that it has lost its contagious might. Life may become more precarious. Without the restrictions, we are no longer as protected and isolated from the virus. Reopening would mean more exposure to others, and therefore, the virus.
It appears though that some don’t see things this way. The behavior of the Memorial Day weekend at beaches, Eaton Canyon and other weekend and vacation spots are examples of that. It’s disturbing – the crowding, lack of social distancing, lack of masks, and frankly, just a lack of awareness that we are in the middle of a pandemic. It’s as though “reopening” equals the virus is gone and we’re free to party and celebrate! Health authorities are warning that precautions must be taken as infections continue to rise in many parts of the country. Yet, the lack of a consistent, clear and coherent message from governmental officials result in confusion, misinterpretations, arguments, haphazard behaviors, at a time when the need for precautions is paramount.
Life must go on. Unfortunately, we are left to figure out how to navigate the reopening on our own.
Back in March, right before the stay-at-home orders started to come down, I was texting back and forth with Tim, a friend in Barcelona. Spain’s shutdown, much stricter than ours, had just been imposed. We were discussing the likelihood that the US was next. He advised, “Don’t wait until the government tells you what to do. You know what you have to do.” Taking his advice, I started to wear face coverings whenever I went out. I had been reading about countries that were successfully warding off the spread. One thing stood out, people in those countries, whether required or not, were wearing face coverings in public. Although CDC only recommended face coverings for those with symptoms at that time, I decided to wear a mask anyway. I didn’t have any symptoms, but shielding my nose, mouth and portions of my face from the “droplets” of others had to be better than nothing. It made sense to me as an added precautionary measure to minimize exposure, especially when it was clear that our lives were to be disrupted dramatically. What’s a little more inconvenience for my safety and that of others?
Late to the game, CDC did not recommend face coverings until two weeks later, when it informed us that a significant number of transmissions occurs from asymptomatic individuals.
Tim’s advice is still very much appropriate in the context of reopening. Rather than relying on the government, I decided to assess the amount of risk I’m willing to accept for my own safety and those around me. My actions should not be driven or dictated by others. Instead, I have to set the rules and at times, make a case-by-case determination for myself.
I am comforted by the fact that I am not alone in this. Based on my discussions with others (via, email, text, zoom and phone calls), they are trying to figure it out, too. How and when do we begin to incorporate more social contact? If so, under what circumstances? Who can we trust? How stringent have they followed social-distancing and what is the level of their hygiene? How serious are they about the virus? What businesses are still on the “to go back to” list? Are they following the guidelines? Under what conditions would we go back to eating at a restaurant? If so, which ones do we trust to have our health as their number one priority?
In these discussions, I’m finding that we are also assessing each other’s quarantine habits to determine if the other person is “safe.” It’s like early stages of dating, getting the awkward questions and “must haves” out of the way to see if there will be a second date. Or, in the current context, is it safe to see each other in person?
Recently, my friend Nancy signed off her email with the hope that we can get together soon in person and added “six feet apart and with masks.” Another friend told me that he is choosing not to see his sister because she has been socializing with her friends in person during the quarantine. A friend with a dog was elated to hear that I hike with a mask because we can hike together with his dog while we both wear masks.
Assessing the risks can be difficult, messy, tedious, and complicated. In a recent Zoom call, an old friend reminded me of the discussions we used to have in the 1990s during the HIV epidemic, when we were both single and dating – not only are you having sex with a person but with every person he/she has had sex with. He then, asked “It’s really the same, isn’t it?” Not only are you having contact with a person, but every person he/she encounters. Ultimately, it becomes an exercise in calculated risk. How badly do you want to do something and how much risk are you willing to take? Bottomline, what is the value of your safety?
It’s sobering, but it’s necessary – at least for me. I passed on some dates back then, and I know that I will have to pass on seeing some people now – even if that means I can’t go to the places and events I that want to. At least, for the time being.