Opinion The world might be done with covid, but I’m still keeping my distance

(Dom McKenzie for The Washington Post)
(Dom McKenzie for The Washington Post)

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at San Francisco.

This summer, I’ve played a new people-watching game while walking New York’s sweaty streets: What’s the story behind the mask? Who’s still adhering to covid-19 restrictions when we’ve cast off nearly all public health guidelines in this era of pandemic apathy?

My unscientific observations yield a few patterns. People over 60, people of color, women and those with visible disabilities make up the majority of this dwindling minority of outdoor maskers.

I can only guess at the reasons behind their precautions. Have they lost loved ones to covid? Are they trying to avoid first infection, or reinfection? Are they unvaccinated? Do they have underlying health problems or high-risk jobs?

All I know is my own story and why I’m masking outdoors in a heat wave.

I have a systemic autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s, that causes debilitating symptoms, including dry mouth, dry eyes and crushing fatigue. Given my condition and difficulty clearing past infections, I’m concerned about increased risk of severe covid, long covid and triggering another autoimmune disorder.

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For 2½ years, I’ve avoided contracting the virus. While it’s hard to tell in most of the United States that there’s an ongoing pandemic, I continue to live a shadow life in my effort to dodge infection. I’m not sure how much longer I can retain my membership in this exclusive club of the never-infected, but I’m trying.

I’m double-boosted and ingest a ridiculous amount of vitamins daily. I don’t know how much my precautions or luck have prevented covid infection. I’ve known extremely careful people who’ve gotten it, others who tried to catch it and failed, and those infected multiple times who don’t seem to care.

Pre-vaccines, death and hospitalization fears consumed me. I still don’t like my odds. How can I be certain I won’t be among the nearly 500 Americans dying of covid every day?

With political penalties for reimposing covid restrictions, I don’t expect elected officials to help me. Now I can only double down on my precautions.

As a lifelong wallflower, bordering on misanthrope, I remain amazed at people’s desire to cluster. Who are these folks who want to sit right next to me in an empty cafe or train car? I don’t get them. But I must find a way to coexist or else condemn myself to lifetime isolation.

I juggle infinitesimal risk calculations. I size up spaces, looking for open doors and windows. I don’t sit at the bar. For outdoor dining, I consider table proximity, shelter for rain and wind, sun and shade.

My brain overflows with strategies for handling tricky public interactions: The close talker. Large tourist family on subway. Children. I have my distancing tricks, such as placing my supermarket basket behind me in line to create a no-pass barrier. When possible, I climb stairs instead of riding escalators and elevators. I go to the gym at night and use whatever machines no one else wants.

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Traveling anywhere tests my nimbleness. I rely on public transit and carry a variety of protective gear — a face shield and surgical, KN95 and N99 masks — giving extras to anyone who needs them.

Since July 2020, I’ve flown several times between New York and California, face-shielded and triple-masked. I fly Southwest for the open seating and scan the aisles for my ideal seatmate: a solo traveler, not eating or drinking, wearing an N95 mask. Last trip, I parked myself between N95 maskers.

Splitting my time between coasts, I’ve observed differences between the Bay Area and New York. California’s lower density and larger spaces, coupled with greater acceptance of public health measures, give me extra breathing room. Downtown San Francisco is my haven, where I can work in a near-empty library and coffee shop, alone together.

Shadow living gives me a peculiar visibility. Following guidelines that many consider “outdated” has me confronting conformity pressures daily. I’d still rather look like a weirdo than risk covid, but I often feel forced to explain myself, like the time I argued with a supermarket worker who wanted me to move up in line, prioritizing a clear aisle over my desire to avoid standing near unmasked strangers. Whenever I advocate for myself, I out myself as a chronically sick person.

Is this a detour through Bizarro World or my arm’s-length reality for the foreseeable future? My Magic 8 Ball says: “Reply hazy, try again.”

I know I’m not alone in feeling sidelined by collective decisions to “end” the pandemic. But having company doesn’t comfort me.

During winter’s omicron surge, I fell into a severe lockdown depression. I’m already bracing for future waves that will test the strength of my precautions. How many more masks can I wear and still breathe? I guess I’ll find out. Until then, masked even in sweltering heat, I’m basking in the sun and staking out what public spaces I can. You’ll find me alone on a park bench or at a sidewalk cafe, enjoying my own “Hot Girl Summer.”