I mentioned in the post about Day 1 of our Upper Peninsula odyssey that I was happy to see a lot of people wearing masks.

This is our first trip during COVID (not counting our month in Lima during Perú’s lockdown), and we weren’t quite sure what we’d find. Oh, wait, we did head three hours west to see Steve’s mom, but that didn’t really feel like a bona fide journey. Because we weren’t going to a bunch of places and going to be around a bunch of people we didn’t know.

Steve’s sister and niece visited us—they’d come east for the same family get-together—before they headed back to Colorado, where they live. They mentioned going to a restaurant on the west side of Michigan, with a sign that basically said, You’re supposed to wear a mask but we’re not going to enforce it. Not even the wait staff were wearing masks, they said.

Well, based on our first day in the UP, despite the area’s low incidence of cases, we felt like sailing would be pretty smooth. People who saw on the road and pretty much everywhere else were masked up.

So we figured that was pretty much how it would be.

And then? It wasn’t.

Masks: Denial

For our second day of the trip—recap coming soon!—we headed to the northwest edge of the UP, Sault Ste. Marie. There was no coffee post-ferry ride to the mainland, and nothing on the way. So we parked in SSM’s cute downtown and went into the first place we saw with a working espresso machine.

Now I’d been game to look further, but we didn’t. The first thing we smelled was that nasty burnt coffee smell where you know the coffee’s not going to be great.

The first thing we didn’t see was masks on the staff. Now this could be paranoia on our part, but I felt like we were getting a “Stupid Mask People” vibe. And again, I admit that may not at all have been the case. So we ordered our coffee and sat in the otherwise empty shop, because empty was a plus in this case.

And then we saw it: Not just the “Masks are required unless you have a medical condition, and if you’re not wearing one, we’ll assume you have a medical condition” sign that Steve’s sister had mentioned, but this next to it:

The whole Declaration of Independence thing is a clever touch, doncha think?

I just want to leave. Because the whole “masks are dumb” thing outlined in bullet #2 just makes me want to scream. In that case, why, just answer me for one second, why has Every Single Country that’s gotten a handle on COVID had a strict mask policy?

We get our coffees, keeping our backs turned when the server plunks them on the bar we’re sitting next to. We leave.

Masks: Acceptance

We’re near a corner, and we see two mask-wearing young-ish men engaged in a lively conversation on the opposite corner. They’re standing six feet from each other.

As we cross the street, we pass them. One says, “So I don’t wear this thing for me, I wear it for you, I wear it for everyone you are going to meet later.”

I smile as big as I can, then remember between my mask and the sunglasses, he can’t see a damn thing.

Look. If the only people who wear masks are the ones who don’t want to get COVID, then my Declaration of Independence buddies are right. Masks are not going to work. There is, alas, some truth to the fact that a poorly-fitting mask, which many, many people have, doesn’t block the particles.

But it does help block particles coming out of your mouth, so you don’t spray them all over other people.

And if everyone wears them, there are double the barriers, which helps to make up for the poor-fitting masks that are just going to happen. Most importantly, from those asymptomatic folks who spread the disease unknowingly every time they open their mouths, which appears to be, as often as not, to bellow about their freedom.

So God bless you, unknown mask-wearing guy in Sault Ste. Marie. Sure, the numbers are low in the UP. But we saw license plates from all over the damn country, including Georgia. The numbers will probably stay low in the UP, because all the visitors who pick up COVID will test positive and register in their home counties.

Point is, there are germs from all over the country, and anyone here could catch them if they’re not careful, or just plain unlucky.

From the Healthy Horse’s Mouth

I recently wrote about my own mini-COVID scare. And the worst part wasn’t thinking I would die, which only lasted for a few hours and is I think the first place your brain goes. The worst part was the fact that I’d have to do my own contact tracing, and tell everyone who I’d been in contact with that they’d have to get tested, including my 94-year-old mother-in-law.

When we were at the family gathering, we all figured since we were family and we knew we didn’t have anything, and that all of us are careful, that we’d be ok. We didn’t wear masks around each other, partly because my mother-in-law has a lot of memory problems and is already pretty easily confused, and masks just make everything harder. We kept our chairs pretty far apart.

But then you return from a trip like that and within a week and have some sort of mystery flu. Now, thank whatever you deem holy, it wasn’t COVID, even though early on, I was convinced it had to be.

Anyway, after that, you re-up your vigilance. I’ve got a mask handy at all times now.

Work With Me, People

And work, I beg you, not just with me, but with everyone. We all need to be careful for each other’s sakes. If nothing else, and best case scenario, the COVID test is damned inconvenient, due to the fact that you have to quarantine until you get your results. In my case, that was 48 hours, which was easy. But I’ve talked to lots of folks, including in big urban areas like San Francisco, where you have to wait 10 days. And serious quarantine for 10 solid days sucks. Most of us have been through it.

So as small as the chances are that you’ll die from it, I can tell you first hand that it’s scary while you wait. Once again, as much for other people you may have infected—if not more—than for yourself.

There’s a great New York Times reporter, Don McNeil, who I’ve been following since we were in Perú. (And this podcast is well worth a listen for four new findings on COVID.) Early on, when things were just beginning to heat up in the US, McNeil mentioned that his parents generation looked back on the Great Depression and WWII as a time of sacrifice—and they were proud and happy about it. The fact that they did sacrifice, whether through rationing or having family members serving overseas or buying war bonds or just helping people out and getting through it together, remained a huge source of identity and unity. This, they felt, is what is best about being American. You’re tough, you care about your neighbors however different they might be from you. You’re united.

But after expressing that, McNeil continued in that early podcast with just a little sorrow creeping into his voice, that the Americans of today are simply not up for that. We don’t like being told what to do.

I listened to McNeil talk when we were in Perú in March, where I had already heard from every Peruvian I’d been in touch with on any level, “We have to be strong for each other. And we will get through this together.”

What the hell is going on with this country where we can’t say that same simple thing?

Sigh. We all know. We really gotta fix that, gang.


And Then There’s Social Distancing

As Steve and I travel west, we see fewer and fewer masks. Not so much in businesses; nearly every restaurant we go into, every shop, and every park has signs posted that require them. It’s the visitors. I’d say at any given place, roughly 1/4 of us wear masks when they’re not explicitly required.

Look, we’re outside, and the fresh air helps dissipate the virus. I get it. But there are a lot of people, I repeat from all over. And the majority of them don’t bother.

Still, we were fairly encouraged for a boat tour of the Pictured Rocks lake shore; the folks behind the desk wore masks, had a mask requirement to go into the payment place, and a mask requirement on the boat. We couldn’t see the boat from where we were waiting, and the line to get on was long, although everyone had a mask. We thought, hey it must be pretty big.

Then we got to the boat. Every group was assigned their own row. The rows were two feet apart. And every row had a group.

Now we were outside, in a lot of wind. And if we’d even been four feet apart, I would’ve been tempted. The boat driver said, “We’re considered public transport, and the rules are different.”

We said no.

The driver was not happy. We went back to the desk. The ticket seller was not happy. “I wish you’d’ve said something,” they said. “I could’ve easily sold these to someone else.”

We felt bad, but not too. I had tried to ask if the quarters on the boat were going to be a little tight, and was told the thing about the mask requirement and the individual rows. I should’ve asked how far apart the rows were, but I didn’t.

In the morning we went back and paid for one of the tickets, splitting the difference with the tour operator. They were happy now.

And we get it. Times are tough. So folks are going to fill those boats if there’s a way to say that they’re in compliance.

And the moral of this story is, ask specific questions. Maybe you’re a risk-taker and you feel like the odds are in your favor. But try to think of who you’ll have to tell just in case you do end up testing positive at some point. If you’re ok with that, then, well, go your merry way, with or without a mask.

Just: Try to remember we’re not alone. Maybe we can all be a little less selfish and realize that being a little inconvenienced is really not that big of a deal. And then, maybe, we can get the damn numbers down and get to the hard work of making the “united” part of United States an adjective that describes this country.

Because right now? It’s beyond irony. It’s tragic.