Look, I’m guilty. For the past 13 months, whenever someone has ambled by maskless on the street, jogged just past me in a cloud of potentially toxic huffs, or refused publicly to take any measures not to rain their tainted droplets down on the lot of us, I have become a regular mental Dexter. All sorts of murderous scenarios have leapt briefly to mind, from firmly but gently hip-bumping the passing Lululemoned runner into oncoming traffic to some complicated business with Christmas lights and a lawnmower that I once saw in a Chucky movie. How dare you not respect my sacred personhood!
No of course I don’t actually want to delicately separate the deliberately infectious into plump, juicy quarters like a free-range chicken about to be roasted! I’m not Hannibal Lecter. (Although I do have the Bon Appétit instructional video bookmarked and a bottle of chianti at hand, just in case.) I love all people and embrace all people, safely and distantly. Violence is abhorrent, and as a human I know the weird corners we sometimes walk ourselves into: There could be a million reasons, maybe, that someone wasn’t able to grab a small piece of cloth and simply place it over their mouth and nose before waltzing around the Panhandle.
Even though I’ve lost several friends to COVID, and my heart continually breaks for the vulnerable communities the maskholes may have put at risk, I’ve tried to practice a little empathy as I hurriedly cross the street. Pushing aside intricate revenge fantasies, I think, instead, of all the valiant healthcare and essential workers who have shown the best of our species in crisis. My dentist tells me this has helped reduce my furious teeth-grinding problem about 50 percent.
There’s a pricklier underlying issue in all this, too: using the pandemic guidelines to indulge in judging others. It was so easy to point one’s homemade-sanitizered fingers at one’s noncompliant neighbors when backed by federal health authorities. And yes, it did often offer a jolt of superiority. One of the basic functions of judginess, for good or ill, is to positively reinforce one’s own behavior. Judging people is rude, even when correct, which we were. But if a little pandemic holier-than-thou spurred more people to keep their masks at the ready, that’s probably a net good—although the whole societal mechanism behind it is terrible.
The real problem is when the shaming goes overboard, and you get a little addicted. Nobody wants to become some deranged Zola of COVID, shouting “J’accuse!” at bewildered children in a half-opened Disney World. That would be embarrassing! (Zola was right, but still.) Holding famous people who should know better to account as examples of what not to do is one thing. Swinging a meticulously decoupaged six-foot-long stick around you to heartily thwack anyone who gets too close is quite another, no matter how much many of us wish to do this in our everyday lives.
And now, well—the mask thing is sort of going away, at least for the fortunate. The CDC announced today that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks outdoors except within large groups. San Francisco and California, laudably cautious, have not rescinded the mask mandate yet, but it’s probably coming. Walking, hiking, biking, dining, alone or with some friends? It’s OK maskless, outside, if you got the jab(s) and waited the required period.
Holy sh*t, what are we supposed to judge each other about now? Already on this morning’s walk, I passed by several neighbors without masks, and had no idea if they were good or bad people! I realized my own mask had transformed overnight from an essential safety apparatus to a tiny security blanket, one I wasn’t quite ready to let go of just yet. Hurray, I’m now a gay COVID Linus, everyone. Come get some.
That’s all fine, though: We should all take whatever time we need to ease into the next stage. Wearing a mask when you don’t necessarily have to isn’t hurting anybody. And to the people I see already flipping COVID-shaming around into mask-shaming—no one is personally attacking you with extra caution, bro.
But this is San Francisco. I love even its sometimes uptight tetchiness, its famously smug attitude. (Hey, most of the country voted for Trump, so we are indeed better, even if our own politics are a mess. Conservatives, you really owned yourselves with that one!) We’re the home of famously enraging bans—Happy Meal toys, soda pop, plastic bags, phone books, hand guns—and righteous side-eyeing over almost every personal choice. You know we’ll have to come up with something to fill the COVID-judging void.
I threw up a little poll on Twitter to test the waters, asking, “Now that we don’t have to wear masks outdoors, what should I be slightly irrationally, murderously angry about?” As of this writing, “single drivers in SUVs” is in the lead, surprisingly beating out Bruno Mars.
In the end, I’m a homosexual, I’ll probably just go back to judging everybody’s shoes and music. But I can’t help reflecting on all the anger so many of us generated on all sides during the height of the pandemic, in our personal hothouses of pandemic hysteria (masks, distancing, Ferris Wheels, school boards, District Attorneys).
And here’s the most San Francisco thing of all that I will say: Can we channel those vibes into a constructive direction, release all that cramped, frenetic energy to tackle other “pandemics”: dismantle systemic racism, say, or house the homeless, close the jails, defund the police, fight the terrible fentanyl overdose scourge?
We obviously have it in us. Why not let it out with one big, relieved sigh of determination.