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Covidiots and COVID-19 deniers

Walking my dogs yesterday, a chipper yet maskless woman made a beeline for me, reaching her possibly germy hands out to pet my pooches.

“Stop,” I said gruffly before she got too close. “You’re not wearing a mask.”

“Oh,” she said, surprised — and slunk away.

Her surprise surprised me. As I moved away from her, angrily and as fast as humanly possible, I thought, “Do you read the news, lady? Are you on social media for even one minute?” Because literally no person on earth (with a brain in their head) would say it’s okay for you to walk up that close to me without a mask on.

But the brainless are ubiquitous, so I’m being extra, super-duper, level 11 cautious. I have rheumatoid arthritis, which may put me at moderate risk to catch COVID, so I barely leave the house these days other than to walk the dogs, go to the doctor, and run small errands. But every time I step foot out my front door I’m reminded why, nine months after the deadly COVID-19 pandemic began, the entire country is still oozing with coronavirus.

Not enough people are taking it seriously.

I live with my mother in a retirement community where comorbidities are as rampant as plaid golf pants. And yet I see groups of maskless older men huddled on golf course putting greens yukking it up within inches of each other. What’s so funny, fellas? Surely not the news of 250,000 and counting dead Americans.

“It’s a difficult reality that we can’t control other people,” explains Katie Willard Virant, MSW, JD, LCSW, a psychotherapist in St. Louis and author of the Psychology Today blog Chronically Me: The Emotional Landscape of Chronic Illness. “I think the rage comes from the helplessness. We feel like there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The Holidays Are Coming

Thanksgiving is upon us, and as the CDC urges/begs Americans not to travel, my California block is newly lined with cars with out-of-state license plates. The community pools are filled with potentially asymptomatic COVID-carrying kids.

I get why they want to be here. It’s fun to do cannonballs off the diving board and donuts on the golf course in Grammy and Grampy’s golf cart.

What’s not fun, though, is spreading coronavirus germs to your elderly relatives, most of whom have underlying conditions coming out of their ears.

I recently chatted patio to patio with my neighbor while he watered his plants, and he proudly informed me his daughter would be visiting from Montana. From a distance, through a piece of cloth mask and clenched teeth, I managed to utter, “that’s nice.”

A close pal is throwing a Friendsgiving for eight people, insisting it’s safe because they’re getting tested, which we should all know by now means absolutely nothing. You can get tested today and be positive tomorrow. Can’t it wait? Vaccines that are up to 95 percent effective are just around the corner.

I just don’t understand the logic. I don’t get this selfish desperate need to sit with people who don’t live in your household and eat food together, especially when studies and public health experts are saying that small home gatherings are driving infection spread and that restaurant dining is particularly responsible for spreading COVID.

I got curbside pickup from Outback Steakhouse the other day, and while I waited in my car for my Bloomin’ Onion, I was shocked to see tables crammed together under a narrow, covered sidewalk. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of being outside? Maskless parties of six (doubtfully from the same household) laughed, talked, and sprayed their droplets across the table as a poor masked waitress took their orders. (Yes, I want people to have jobs but not under these circumstances.)

Some Healthy Perspective

For the first time in our lives, my mom and I won’t be spending Thanksgiving with my brother and his family.

And for the love of God, we are fine with it.

My mom can eat the entire pecan pie with her hands if she wants and I’ll stuff my face with leftover turkey and stuffing sandwiches on white bread until I explode. I mean, when it comes down to it, who cares if anyone else comes over? It’s one day like all the others. I can watch the audience-less Macy’s Day Parade and National Dog Show alone in my pajamas in the same corner of the couch I’ve been wedged in since March. I will live if I can’t pull apart the wishbone with my great niece. I will not live if this same niece infects me with Rona.

Having a pared-down Thanksgiving should not be such a big deal, in the large scheme of things. Thanksgiving isn’t that enjoyable for a lot of people, whether they’re in person or not. Um, have you ever seen The Family Stone or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles? A Tweet from author Lauren Hough summed it up perfectly: “I assume the [people] complaining about missing one [bleep] Thanksgiving have never been deployed or needed the overtime or couldn’t get the day off and they’re sure as [bleep] not gay.”

If I seem unhinged or like a goody two shoes I don’t care. I don’t want a medal for my by-the-book quarantine behavior — I want to stay alive and I don’t want to kill anyone else. The covidiots are making that harder and harder, as cases in the U.S. surge exponentially. In California, where I live, in the last month alone, cases have tripled, hospitalizations have doubled, and deaths have increased 50 percent, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

As we all are well aware, the whole country is on alert. And yet there is this pervading vibe among too many that’s basically like, eh, who cares. It’s partly COVID fatigue, and partly “magical thinking,” says Willard Virant. “It’s a refusal to take in reality. This is a very scary time, and we have our defenses, including denial. Many people are minimizing this because they can’t bear the vulnerability of really feeling what is happening right now.”

In the meantime, South Dakota has a staggering near-60 percent positivity rate. Field hospitals are being set up in New York again. This summer, Air Force nurses were deployed to our local hospital to help the overwhelmed staff. Now they’re headed to North Dakota, which currently has the world’s highest coronavirus mortality rate.

Despite CDC travel advisories and calls for quarantining when going from state to state, the snowbirds who own a house across the street just arrived from Fargo, North Dakota and have unashamedly and immediately been out and about maskless, even though they admitted to me everyone in their family back home has tested positive.

Let’s just say I’m not shy about crossing to the other side of the street when they come my direction. Sure, I give a friendly wave, even though inside my head I’m screaming like Elaine on the subway on Seinfeld. Outwardly, at least, I’m cordial. The other day, I politely turned down a friend’s invite to a book club being held indoors. I squeaked out a “no thanks” when what I really wanted to say was, “What in the ever-living f#@* is wrong with you?!”

It’s Not Fun Being in the ‘Pandemic Police Department’

My patience for this profoundly stupid behavior is wearing thin but so far, I’ve only been courageous enough to take it out on strangers. I got into a full-blown screaming match with an arrogant maskless shopper at my local grocery store, as the lady behind me whispered, “You go, girl!” In a Krispy Kreme drive-through line I yelled out the window at the maskless drivers in the car in front of me to “put a damn mask on.” I wear a mask when I go to Kroger or through Arby’s drive-through (mmmm Beef ’n Cheddar) for my safety, of course, but more than that, out of respect for the workers who are coming in contact with hundreds of strangers per day.

Strangers who, frankly, cannot be trusted.

I mean, dozens of the 83 guests at a recent wedding in Ohio got COVID. Who in their right minds would throw a party like that right now? Probably the same people who filled up the prematurely reopened bars at The Wharf in Fort Lauderdale, which were shut down again immediately the day after. Hundreds of people showed up, packed in like sardines, and refused to wear masks.

Lately, I’m truly mortified scrolling through my Instagram stories and still seeing acquaintances flagrantly not following common-sense rules. I’ve deleted and muted many. On one hand I feel justified, on the other hand I feel judgy.

I’ve joined the Pandemic Police Department — and I’m not enjoying it. “That can be corrosive and stressful,” Willard Virant agrees.

The problem is, there has been no national leadership and people have different ideas of risk assessment, she adds. “We’re getting a lot of mixed messages in terms of what’s okay and what’s not okay. There’s a lot of middle ground and not necessarily a pure right or wrong. What you might find risky is something that someone else doesn’t find risky, and vice versa. We’re all left to making these decisions on our own. Like, someone might be traveling a lot, but they’ve kept their kid out of soccer. Someone else might be furious at that person for traveling, but their kid goes to soccer every week. There are all kinds of levels and people value and prioritize different things.”

Facts Are Facts

There are important undisputed facts, however. Wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding big crowds absolutely lowers your risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus.

“It is really difficult when we see people not able or not willing to follow those basic mandates,” Willard Virant adds. “People are free to take risks, but when their risks are a danger to other people. If you want to get together with your family for Thanksgiving, great, but I hope to hell you’re testing and quarantining for two weeks after that.”

We owe it to the doctors and nurses and first responders, who are working themselves literally to death to save us from ourselves, to do these simple things. We owe it to teachers and parents trying to keep their sanity intact with remote learning. We owe it to restaurant and small business owners, who are losing their livelihoods.

Most of all, we owe it to the people who have died from this horrible illness. If you don’t know anyone yet, you will soon. I guarantee it. I just found out five minutes ago that a childhood friend’s father died from COVID.

I’ve felt compelled to be hyper-vigilant and often confrontational. On one hand, social shaming works and can help things change. But it’s also caused me resentment, anxiety, and exhaustion.

I will continue to speak out.

Nobody wants to be the nerdy bad guy, but I do feel we need to be brave if we want to ensure that there are no empty chairs around the dinner table next holiday season.

It’s on All Of Us to take this more seriously, collectively.

“As much as we like to think that we’re all independent, we are really interdependent. Willard Virant says. “We’re all really learning how interconnected we are.”

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Interview with Katie Willard Virant, MSW, JD, LCSW, a psychotherapist in St. Louis and author of the Psychology Today blog Chronically Me: The Emotional Landscape of Chronic Illness

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