“Effective at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 17, 2020 any individual who is over age two and able to medically tolerate a face-covering shall be required to cover their nose and mouth with a mask or cloth face-covering when in a public place and unable to maintain, or when not maintaining, social distance.”
Executive Order, Continuing Temporary Suspension and Modification of Laws Relating to the Disaster Emergency
I’ve been skeptical of masks from the beginning. I always felt when I saw them before the pandemic that they represented a kind of health snobbery — the idea that it was worth sacrificing social interaction on the off chance there might be free-flying germs. At the beginning of spring break, I remember seeing 18-year-olds coming on the plane we took to Puerto Rico wearing masks and t-shirts and shorts and thinking they were nuts. A friend offered to send us masks for our flight back, but I couldn’t imagine wearing them. When we got back, I relented and asked him to send them but then forwarded them on to my brother who is a doctor in a hospital in Connecticut.
Now we don’t have a choice. We are all wearing masks, as per Governor Cuomo’s order, which went into effect ten days ago. Everyone. It’s reassuring but also kind of depressing.
One of the best things about living in New York City is the sense of community, maybe a little too much community sometimes. We are on top of each other, but our neighborhoods feel full of people we know. And even just walking the dog is replete with smiles and brief interactions with familiar faces we see all the time.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that wearing masks permanently in a city like this might seriously change what it’s like to live here. Now we can’t do more than shoot someone a nod from behind our masks. We can’t tell if they’re outraged that we let our dog near theirs or fine with it. Eyes alone don’t say much. We are in fact, not unlike the dogs we’re walking. Reading body language, except none of us have tails.
Our nearly two-year-old Labrador puppy, Korra, does not understand social distancing. In the past she would pull us toward other dogs, now we lead her away, or wait to see whether the other owners are willing. When they are, the resulting confab can take up a significant swathe of sidewalk: two owners at opposite ends of leashes, with dogs in the middle, just about perfectly measures six feet.
Korra is not having it. The other day, walking her down West End Avenue, she kept sticking her nose into every doorway, trying to get someone’s — anyone’s — attention. “Liberate Korra!” she seemed to be begging the doormen.
A cornucopia of mask options has begun appearing on our Instagram feeds, and my wife and I have been quietly filing multiple Etsy orders from the opposite ends of the apartment where we have set up our work stations. (We could be wearing these things a lot in the future, she points out.) Hers will be classy, while mine will probably tend toward the eclectic. So far, I’ve purchased two: one with a butterfly on it and another with a dragonfly. I declined options with dog faces and team logos, and laughed at pretend ones made out of strips of bacon and pizza.
For a while I was looking forward to wearing a mask with a political slogan on it. That felt like a perfect place to express my outrage at the incompetence that has gotten us here. I imagined ones that would say The Emperor Has No Clothes or Hey Ho the President Needs to Go or Is it 25th Amendment Time NOW?! Or Trump: Covid-1? But when they started to appear, I found I didn’t want one. I realized that walking around with a slogan blocking my mouth was a dismal metaphor for our nation’s politics.
But we have to wear them. So I am wearing mine —a pink bandana my daughter lent me until the fancier ones arrive.
We are wearing the masks but getting New Yorkers to stop breathing on each other is not the easiest task in the world. This is because of our fierce inclination to refuse to give an inch of the 12-square that each of us occupy, especially when it’s in our beloved parks. While I was playing fetch with Korra during our walk the other day, I lowered my bandana to breathe a little better. Suddenly a jogger wearing no mask at all came within about a foot of me before grudgingly jogging around. He had 100 feet of park grass on either side of me, but I was on the path.
In the comic book version of our city, people with masks and super powers come to save us at a time like this. But so far it’s been regular people, coming in day after day, the people at the grocery store filling orders and restocking shelves, the subway conductors and workers of whom we’ve lost an astonishing amount — according to reports more than 80 transit workers have died from Covid-19. I can certainly wear a mask to support and protect them. But since when should coming to work in grocery stores, or residential buildings, or subways require heroism? Since the federal government failed to protect the country again. I’m sorry to say. Just like on 9/11.
We’ve been at this six weeks now. Our two-bedroom apartment has so far not begun to shrink. Different parts of it have just taken on different identities. The living room becomes the gym when it’s not the TV watching area. I’ve been doing push-ups my trainer calls mud-eaters which I will now forever think of as carpet-eaters (or dustball-eaters). During the day our bedroom becomes my wife’s office. The dining room table my café to write in. The kids either work in their room or out here with me.
We’ve been cleaning the house as a family, something we normally hire someone to do once a week. Getting up close and personal with the surfaces of your apartment lets you know exactly what you’ve been asking of the person you ask to clean your bathroom. It takes the four of us three hours to clean the apartment. How did the cleaning lady do this and the laundry in a single day? When she comes back, we will keep doing our own laundry. It’s just too much.
At the beginning of the quarantine, there were multiple memes reminding us that Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity and Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague and so we should all see this moment as an opportunity. Now the word on Twitter seems to be that it is enough of an accomplishment if you simply manage to get dressed most days.
Everyone may not have a theory or a play in them, but I do think those of us who are lucky enough to be fighting only cabin fever and boredom should demand of ourselves at the very least a level of contemplation, even if any hope of a regular future seems impossible to imagine. As Governor Cuomo said last weekend: “After this horrendous period that we have gone through on every level, the exorbitant cost of this, the personal pain of this, the death of this, this has to be one of those moments when we look back and where we say society transformed,” he said. “It was a transformational period. When growth and evolution were accelerated.”
One way that might happen is if we somehow take advantage of the silver lining the coronavirus has brought in giving the environment a two-month respite from its slow march towards disaster. Before this happened, the idea that it would be possible to turn off the world’s industries for two months would have been unthinkable. It’s probably too much to imagine the world doing this voluntarily again but now at least we can see what its effect could be. Maybe only the urgency of having gone through this experience will convince people that this other unimaginable danger is real and can be faced.
Already people are beginning to worry that this pandemic may hurt the future of cities: places which thrive on people gathering. That is especially worrisome here, where artists trying to make it survive on jobs around the edges of the audiences who gather to watch more famous artists. Waiters in New York City are almost always actors. If restaurants disappear how will struggling actors make money? And of course if no one can gather what will happen to Broadway?
As a café-writing writer I understand that these won’t be the most important issues to consider when the city begins to reopen. But I think it’s important that the people in charge think of more than just what will make money again. What can make this city a better place to live for the artists and writers and other creative people who flock here trying to make their dreams come true? Not to mention the medical professionals and the regular people who are once again saving this city’s bacon.
On this I think our governor is ahead of me. Or at least I believe he’s thinking about it. When Cuomo opened a press conference last week with the governors of five states on the line announcing a task force that would begin the process of figuring out how to safely reopen the region for business (I love that that group included six of the original 13 colonies, in case we have to start the whole thing over) one had a sense that this problem, which never should have gotten anywhere near this big, was finally going to be assessed by a panel of government grownups. (Governors acting together like this would also probably have been unthinkable two months ago.)
In Cuomo we Trust, then. We will need lots of testing: testing, testing, testing. The way before it was ventilators, ventilators, ventilators. Cuomo has a wonderful habit of repeating baleful words to make them seem slightly less frightening.
This is in such contrast to the president, who can’t seem to open his mouth without creating chaos. The meme that went around a couple of weeks ago showing Trump with a piece of duct tape over his mouth was particularly apt. “Dr. Fauci announces a new mask that will save thousands of lives,” went the accompanying caption.
There was a lot of truth in it. Putting a piece of duct tape over the president’s mouth would probably have saved lots of lives. From those who believed him when he dismissed the danger of the virus, to those who may have run out and taken an untested drug because he said they should. And now those who are heeding his tweets to protest shutdowns in order to “liberate” their states and those wondering about the healing potential of poisonous cleaning fluids and light.
The thing that made me laugh the most about that meme was the duct tape. I bet most New Yorkers still have somewhere in the back of our closets at least one roll of duct tape, which we were all urged to buy after 9/11. We were supposed to use it to tape up our windows if we were attacked with mustard gas or a biological agent or something, as I remember. Whatever it was supposed to be for, I remember thinking if we had to use duct tape for that, we would be done for.
It would be great if one day our pile of masks would join the rolls of duct tape in the backs of our closets. But I fear they will be with us for some time to come.