I ventured into the mall over the Thanksgiving weekend. The event may highlight my Science Traveling 2020 roundup at the end of December. Thus is travel in the year of COVID.
Health professionals, of course, are telling people to avoid congregating in groups, including, and perhaps especially, family gatherings for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. The reasons are obvious, and valid. The U.S. is nearing 14,000,000 cases and 275,000 deaths due to COVID-19. The third wave of infections we’re experiencing dwarfs the first two waves. Hospitalizations are at an all-time high, which means deaths are expected to jump in the next week while cases skyrocket between now and Christmas, leading to more deaths.
Why? Because people are ignoring the advice to stay home.
Which brings me to the mall. Yes, I’m supposed to be staying home, and indeed, I have been. Since March I’ve rarely gone amongst my fellow human beings other than unavoidable provision runs to the grocery store. I’m lucky enough to be within walking distance of several forest and pond trails to get some exercise. The mall itself is about 1.6 miles each way.
So this weekend I decided to walk off the holiday excess and see if the local mall had survived the lack of buyers. Suiting up in COVID mask and a virtual ten-foot pole to maintain social distancing, I strolled into the open expanse of main hallway to incredulously find the mall quite crowded. Not elbow to elbow crowded, but certainly awash with patrons as desperate to get outside their bubbles as the stores were to encourage life-saving purchases.
I was impressed with the steps taken to approximate a safe environment. Every store had cordoned off areas in the main hall to allow an usher of sorts to limit the number of people within an establishment. Markers on the floor clued the queue on adequate spacing. Everyone was wearing masks. And everyone seemed to have bought into the idea. I saw no incidents, no one making a scene, no one even appearing irritated by the limitations and “violations of our personal freedoms,” as some Ayn-Randian folks explain their disregard for the rights and lives of others.
Even Santa had gotten the memo. No lap-sitting in this year of COVID. A fully masked Santa sat comfortably in his massive chair while each kid was ushered to a set of soft ottomans in front of him. The kids wore masks too as they leaned into Santa – still keeping distance – and communicated their likely more subdued wish lists via a combination of shouting and gesturing. After Santa duly noted their desires (and surreptitiously informed their parents), the kids turned away to have their photo taken with Santa waving in the background. After each child left, an elf (okay, he was the photographers assistant and not dressed particularly elfin) would rush in to disinfect the ottomans before the next visitor. A successful socially distanced Christmas tradition is born, although I suspect no one wants to repeat it next year.
And those small carts in the main hallway that sell specialty goods ranging from scented spritzers to iPhone cases? This year they were joined by a cart selling nothing but COVID masks. Several stores also advertised branded masks in their windows. Necessity breeds innovation – and sales opportunities.
I saw only two stores that seemed permanently closed, which is about how many I normally see in the cutthroat mall business. The others all seemed to be getting by, at least for now. The restaurants all seem to be open as well. In most, every other table was blocked off to maintain distancing, while the host and waitstaff wore masks the entire time. Restaurants with outdoor seating had expanded those sections as much as possible with extra tables, and in some cases tents, to spread their clientele out as much as possible. I suspect heaters will appear as the temperatures drop.
How long this will last is in question. I knew when states were closing down in the spring that political pressures would keep them from re-closing once they opened up again. The number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have risen so far that some jurisdictions have backtracked to earlier phases of “reopening.” Others are standing pat and counting on individuals to monitor their own behavior, which is as much a fools errand as expecting corporations to self-monitor. My area has reinstituted some restrictions, but still provides flexibility for businesses to choose their level of constraint. See “self-monitoring.”
Of course, how bad this resurgence of COVID gets is up to us. We all want to support our local businesses, but we also need to recognize that the more we interact with others outside our households, the more the infection risk increases. And it’s not just about us. Every person who argues they are “young and healthy” and thus “not worried” about COVID has parents, grandparents, friends, and co-workers, many of whom are in higher risk categories. I would like to visit my mother, but I also would like to continue to have a mother to visit in the future.
If that isn’t enough, the increase in hospitalizations shows that the proclaimed immortality of the “young and healthy” is a myth. We’re all susceptible. And because many ignored warnings and got together in multi-household gatherings for Thanksgiving, a spike in new cases and deaths will happen this and in ensuing weeks. We saw a slight drop-off in the record case levels over the holiday period, but that reflects limited reporting, not a real decrease, just as we see every weekend, only to see numbers climb again through the week. You can see the patterns on Worldometer.
Which means my little excursion to the mall, despite my masking and distancing, will put me back into a self-imposed quarantine to contain any latent infection I may have picked up.
And then it will be Christmas. Merry COVID.
David J. Kent is an avid traveler, scientist, and Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World as well as two specialty e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.