There he was, standing in the frozen food section of the local Walmart, a magnificent tan-looking man with his face as bare as a baby’s.
“Wow, congratulations!,” I said. “Has anyone scolded you for not wearing a mask?”
“A woman at the entrance said something,” he responded, “but it didn’t matter because I’m fully vaccinated.”
“So am I!” I told him, whipping my mask off. And that’s how I entered the ranks of the California Covid scofflaws.
Before cheering or hissing, please know the full story. My act of rebellion came a day after the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear facemasks indoors. Both President Joe Biden and the Covid guru himself, Dr. Anthony Fauci, had fully endorsed the new guideline.
And yet, as I stood poised to enter Walmart sans facial protection, an enormous sign rudely stopped me in my tracks. “Face coverings are required for all customers and associates,” it loudly proclaimed, “per local/state order.” And so, glancing timidly in each direction, I sheepishly put my mask back on. And immediately felt both surprised and relieved that virtually everyone in the store had done the same thing.
Ah, but then that cursed guy in the frozen food section forced me to confront my inner demon. Was I a man or a dog; a fully cognizant being willing to follow his own convictions, or a lowly leashed animal bound to do what he is told? Without even thinking, I opted for manhood. And spent the rest of my shopping spree nervously looking clear-nosed over my shoulder.
Apparently my consternation has become America’s.
“The CDC’s new COVID mask guidance creates a confusing ‘new normal’” the Los Angeles Times complained in an Op-Ed headline the other day. On the opposite coast, meanwhile, the New York Times chimed right in: “Federal Mask Retreat,” it growled, “Sets Off Confusing Scramble for States and Cities.”
At the heart of the dilemma lies the classic federalist question: who to obey first, the nation or the state? At least 20 states that still had mask mandates decided, in the immediate aftermath of the CDC announcement, to rescind them for their vaccinated citizens. Some discrepancies lie between states and their own cities; while Minnesota has no mask mandate, for instance, its largest city—Minneapolis—still has one intact. And many business owners have simply rejected becoming the new Covid gatekeepers.
“Am I supposed to start asking people for vaccination cards now?” one East Los Angeles restauranteur lamented to the LA Times. “It doesn’t make sense…”
Shortly after my painfully conflicted visit to Walmart, the company became the first major American retail chain to relax its mask requirements considering the CDC’s recommendations. Ah, but not in California where the governor still promises to enforce the state’s strict mask mandate at least until June 15.
Which, of course, begs the question of how I will act until then.
Frankly, I’m not sure. While I certainly make it a habit to obey local customs, I can’t honestly say that my behavior is unaffected by its consequences. In the Philippines, where I lived when the virus first appeared and to which I will probably return before it has fully departed, any refusal to follow local mask ordinances could well result in public humiliation and arrest. In America it’s different; about the worst thing I face here is the hostile glares of my fellow shoppers.
Not everybody glares, of course; during my recent Walmart outing the man in frozen foods wasn’t the only rebel I encountered. There was one other; a young, bare-faced woman who shot me a radiant, conspiratorial smile.
I can’t deny that it was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a year. Nor can I guarantee that I won’t soon feel tempted to seek many more.
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David Haldane’s latest book, a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street,” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author and radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines
Originally Published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily