On Masks and Freedom

Like the proverbial pair of gloves in a hockey fight, like the wheels on my so-called golf game, like the peeling paint on the back deck and that famed dress at an after-prom party (so I’ve been told), the masks are coming off.

Some 15 months after we all were forced behind our cloth shields and into semi-isolation to battle a pandemic that, as of this week, has killed more than 600,000 Americans, this is where we are. Slowly for some of us, immediately for many others, we’re now taking the first few unclad steps back toward — what? How it used to be? The good old days? Normalcy?

I don’t think it’s that. From here, normalcy still looks a long ways off.

Let’s just say we’re taking the first steps, naked-faced, away from the fear and pain of the pandemic. What’s waiting for us out there, we’ll see.

The whole mask-free thing started a few weeks ago. I was in the car in the parking lot of our local Kroger, dutifully strapping on my mask for another quick dive into the store for bananas or milk or some other staple that has sustained me through the past year. (There’s a chance it was chocolate and/or beer.) A buzz on my phone alerted me that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just determined that those of us who were vaccinated against the coronavirus — and there are millions of us — could now shed our masks where the law allowed.

I had no sooner slid from the driver’s seat when a woman from across the lot came rushing at me.

“Did you hear?” she said, rather clearly, because she had on no mask. “We don’t have to wear masks anymore. We’re free! I’m free!”

This … lady … acted as if she had just completed a cross-bay swim from Alcatraz, or broken out of a POW camp in Laos or something. She thrust her hands into the air. I think, right there in the middle of the Crabapple Kroger parking lot, she did a little jig. She was absolutely beside herself.

More alarmingly, after more than a year of mandated social distancing, she was beside me.

“Yeah,” I told her, certainly not as clearly because I was busy molding that little pipe cleaner inside my mask to my nose. “I wonder if Kroger is going to let you in without one?”

Of course, that’s not exactly what I was thinking. What I was thinking: “What, do you feel like you’ve been shackled in a dungeon for the past year? Have you been in solitary confinement? On the rack? Have your rights really been assaulted? You’re free? You weren’t free before? Really?”

She rushed into the store, this maskless first-adopter, and told the news to every employee she could buttonhole and every shopper that couldn’t avoid her. (Yes, I followed her for a bit, at a distance.) Few were, like her, uncovered. But she was excitable, and she had news, and even if it wasn’t clear quite yet what the CDC’s latest edict meant, she knew what it meant to her. She was free. Free at last. Thank god almighty, free of that constricting mask that had violated her God-given and USA-approved rights.

Being able to pick over kumquats in your local Kroger without a mask on is in the Bill of Rights, evidently.

That was the start of the literal unmasking of America, or at least my little corner of Alpharetta. Over the past few weeks, businesses from California to Crabapple have begun to allow customers to browse around all bare-faced. Most storeowners still are asking their employees, for their sake, to strap on while they’re working. But not all. If you work at Kroger, to stay with a theme, and have been vaccinated (according to my neighbor who works at Kroger who has been vaccinated), you can go face-naked if you’d like. Up to you.

Restaurants are starting to push their tables back together. Ballparks and Home Depots are filling up now with people in various levels of maskless-ness. It’s a kind of tentative do-si-do between those “We’re free!” folks and many others who think, “Hold on a sec. Maybe we should keep these things on just a little longer?”

The other day, I stopped in one of my favorite cheap Mexican food places to grab a little to-go dinner. Half of the tables were taken by people wolfing down burritos, which you really cannot do wearing a mask. The guy building my quesadilla had his mask on, and I had mine on, too — generally speaking, when I’m inside, I’m definitely a member of the “Can’t hurt” crowd — but the salsa bar was shut down and the whole place still had that pandemic pall about it. I considered sitting at a table to eat — again, I have been vaccinated — but instead took my meal outside, slung my mask onto the table there and made short work of my first near-restaurant meal in 2021.

About three weeks ago, shortly after the CDC word came down, a bunch of my already vaccinated basketball-starved buddies gathered on a Sunday night at an old gym in Roswell to try to resuscitate our games. It was a little strange, all that huffing and puffing and not a face covering in sight. But, for our over-40 group (or, if I’m including myself, over over-40), after running up and down the court for the first few times in a year-plus, any breath was a good breath.

Mary Jo and I are planning a trip to see the boy in a few weeks, too, which will require getting on an airplane and sleeping in a hotel-like space, something only the truly brave or truly desperate have done in the past year. Both of those prospects are a little unnerving. But I’m looking forward to the trip. It’s better than watching another Netflix show.

I know, I know. This all may be a bit premature. Warning signs are not hard to find. Dangerous-sounding coronavirus variants pop up all the time. India is a mess. Parts of Europe are slowing their opening parties. We all know: It’s not as if we’re completely out of danger. We may be freer than we’ve been since the early part of 2020. But we’re not free. Not yet.

Still, like the Lady in the Lot, it’s hard not to get excited about what we hope to be the end of a horrible, horrible period in our lives. Just walking outside now with my mug unadorned feels … I don’t know. Maybe the Lady’s word is right. If not exactly free, going without a mask is “freeing.”

I’ll keep a mask or two in the car, certainly, and I’ll still pull it on when I venture into Kroger or any other indoor public place. It seems like the responsible thing to do. If it helps keep people healthier and can put this coronavirus down for good — nobody really knows, but if — I’ll make the sacrifice. No biggie.

And if, finally, we do beat this thing? For good? Heck, I may do a little rug-cutting in the Kroger lot myself.

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