Because I can already feel hackles rising on both sides of the To Mask or Not to Mask debate, let me start by laying out three things: First, my spouse and I are both in our late sixties. Second, one of us is in delicate health, which is why we flew to Florida. And third, we are well aware of our privilege in being able to make the choice to spend the worst of winter in a place of sunshine and ocean breezes. Whether or not we should have travelled at all is a discussion for another day. This is about masks.
When we left for Fort Myers, masks were mandatory on all flights and in airports both here and in the States. It was only when we stopped at a grocery store on the way to our final destination that we knew we had entered a completely different world. The sign outside the store read ‘Masks recommended.’ Inside, fully half of the shoppers were unmasked. The sight of naked faces behind carts, in line at the deli counter and scanning apples in the produce department was startling.
Like the other half of the people in the store, I wore a mask, and contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, no one questioned me about my choice. In fact, in the two months we were in the U.S, we never once witnessed anyone arguing with anyone else about their choices. On twitter people holler at each other about it all the time. But in real life, everyone was just getting on with their day. Standing in the checkout line, I realized that this is what Normal looks like now. Masks and naked faces side-by-side, respecting each other’s choices. And I had a lot of choices to make.
Go to the gym, where masks were not even recommended, or kid myself that I would work out at home. Enter restaurants, fully prepared for naked faces and no vaccine mandates, or cook every meal myself. Take in a movie, a festival, anything where people would gather unmasked, or sit on the deck and watch the world go by. It took less than 24 hours to decide to trust the vaccines and boosters and get out there and live my life, taking whatever precautions felt right.
The first time I went to the gym, I wore a mask and held my breath as I walked through the cardio room; a knee-jerk reaction to all those naked faces huffing and puffing on cheek-by-jowl treadmills and rowing machines. On the second visit, I forgot to worry about that. On the third, I also forgot my mask in the car. For the first time, I didn’t go back. I left it there and breathed normally as I made my way through the cardio room to a group class. No masks required there either. Just lots of deep inhales and hearty exhales. I found a spot. Breathed in, breathed out then let myself relax and fall into normal.
Patio dining was our go-to in the daytime because who wants to eat indoors when the sun is shining, and temperatures are balmy. But In January and February, hungry little bugs called no-see-ums make outdoor dining a misery after sunset which meant saying yes to indoor dining or staying home.
Without mask or spacing rules, restaurants were crowded and lineups often long. It came to me as we sat in the car, deciding whether to make our way to the hostess desk or head home, that having people all around is normal. Distancing is not. So, we left the masks in the car, breathed in and out and walked to that desk to request a table for two. As we followed her between the tables, we smiled at each other and relaxed into normal.
We also made a side trip to Georgia, stopping at a Bed and Breakfast in Gainsville on the way. In the morning, we took another step forward, enjoying breakfast and animated conversation with unmasked strangers in the dining room. I hadn’t realized how much I missed chance encounters with random people until it came to the goodbyes. There were hugs all around, which was shocking and wonderful, but no one made promises to write or follow anyone on social media. We were content to have met and hear stories we hadn’t heard before. Now it was on to the next adventure. Just as it used to be.
In Savannah, we went on a food tour with six strangers, sharing tables and stories in six different restaurants. Discovering over a bowl of delightful shrimp and grits that the couple across from us were anti-vaxxers. By then, we were unfazed. This is what normal looks like after a pandemic. Living your life, knowing there are risks in everything you do. Driving a car, taking a flight, crossing a road. Taking precautions that are right for you, and feeling neither defensive nor antagonistic toward the decisions of others.
We took a rapid test once a week, not because we were afraid of getting Covid or thought it protected us in any way but because we needed to test negative in order to get home again. Testing positive on a rapid home test would mean getting a confirmation test from a lab asap so the clock could start ticking on our quarantine. As long as ten days had passed before our flight was due to take off, we would be fine. Fortunately, we tested negative 24 hours before our flight and came home as scheduled.
In the Land of Naked Faces, I learned to let go of fear, to relax, to breathe and embrace normal. So much has been lost in this pandemic, things we aren’t even aware of until they come rushing back and you smile and nod and think, ‘I remember this.’
Ontario is lifting vaccine and mask mandates. Having lived mask-free for two months, I’m ready to throw them away for good. Your choice may be different, but as long as we accept each other’s decisions without defense or rancor, life can be pretty good again. Here’s to normal!