Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 7, 2020

We can’t even get easy virus stuff right

We’re about five months into this COVID-19 pandemic – give or take, depending on how you define the beginning – and we clearly haven’t mastered the behavior required to seize control.

I’m not talking about the big stuff like contact tracing, quarantines, temperature checks at public buildings, internal travel restrictions, etc., the things other countries have done to flatten their curves and restart the economies. I’ll even ignore the hot-button issues of whether to open schools and bars.

I’m talking basics. For example:

• Recently, at a major grocery chain, a deli worker slicing roast beef for the person in line in front of me was wearing his mask under his nose and pulling it away from his face to talk to the customer. I decided to surrender my spot in line and go for the prepackaged turkey.

• At a fast-casual restaurant last week, I watched as a worker wiped down tables, countertops and the soda machine before moving on to the trays on which customer orders were being placed, same cloth. That’s gross under any circumstance.

• At a local convenience store – with “masks required” signs on the front door – I watched as three maskless police officers enjoyed their breakfast and a few laughs while standing over the “roller food.” With buffets closed for sanitary purposes, how is open-air roller food still a thing? Sure, there’s a sneeze guard, but …

None of these are bad people. In fact, all are performing important services. They’re not intentionally trying to make the rest of us sick. They simply are not being made aware of the seriousness of the situation by our governmental leaders or their employers.

But it’s these everyday situations that reveal just how casual we are about a virus that has sickened almost 5 million and killed 157,000 in the U.S.

I’m lucky in that I have a job that allows me to work from home and not shoulder-to-shoulder at a chicken processing plant. I don’t have to interact with people other than the grocery store or to grab some takeout food.

I am an avid walker and hiker, and it’s on area trails and neighborhood sidewalks – with my 2-year-old border collie mix Murphy – that the divide is revealed between those who take the virus seriously and those who don’t.

Whether it’s a paved path 10 feet wide or a hilly, wooded trail barely wide enough for two people to pass in the opposite direction, oncoming hikers fit into two categories: Those who will do what they can to create safe space between us, and those who will not.

And it almost always comes down to age.

Hikers closer to retirement than college are more likely to slip a mask over their face when approaching and will step off the trail to let me pass if I haven’t already done the same for them.

On wider paths, older hikers instinctively move to their right. In groups, they slip into single file.

Younger hikers often keep moving two, three or four abreast, engaged in conversation and ignoring oncoming traffic, no masks to deploy.

Are they bad, uncaring people? Probably not. They more likely are a reflection of a time in which we are told that all information is fake if it doesn’t fit what we want to believe at that moment.

It’s easy to dismiss photos and video footage of young partiers in packed bars or swimming pools as just a few reckless kids. But what if we’re not reaching a whole generation with the message of how this deadly virus is spread?

It was much easier when there were three commercial TV networks and newspapers were widely read to increase awareness for health crises and other issues of widespread public concern.

Today’s media are hopelessly diluted, and there are seemingly too few social media influencers to make a difference.

So, what can we do?

• Wear a mask to protect yourself and others, especially those who don’t have the luxury of working from home.

• Speak up politely and quietly when you see something that needs to be corrected for the sake of everyone’s health. Loud and demanding only begs someone to record the whole interaction and make you a social media ogre.

• Use some common sense. A narrow hiking trail is no place for runners to go for a personal record on a crowded Sunday morning.

Other countries have figured this out. We can, too.

Lyle Graves is associate publisher and executive editor of the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at lgraves@tnledger.com.