This morning, I took a walk through Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. I’m here on a family vacation — a vacation that is taking place just 60 miles from our Boston home — because our state still has a 14-day quarantine for returning from out-of-state travel. The Cape Cod tourist economy is operating well under its normal end-of-June levels. The house we rented — normally booked all summer long — was unused until we rented it just before the July 4th holiday. It’s clear from day one that there are a lot of insects in the house. By day three, we can tell that there are also mice. It’s a well-reviewed property, but it’s also been empty for at least six months. The bugs are dead. We don’t ever see the mice. We adapt. The curtains have little anchors on them. There is wall art everywhere with sea horses and shells. The coasters on the coffee table say “Nautical..Or Nice.” The street across from us (you can look this up) is Fresh Holes Street.
Nothing is normal.
I don’t see very many people on my walk. I pick up a large Dunkin’ along the way (mask on) and get my 10,000 steps in before heading back to our rental house to rouse the children and prepare for a day at the beach. There is almost nothing notable about my walk, save one, tiny, human interaction. While walking, I’m wearing a gaiter around my neck that I can quickly pull over my face when I see someone. I walk by Blanchard’s Package Store (for you non-alcoholics, a “packy” is where we Massholes buy lickah) and I see someone coming out with a paper bag. When he gets within 20 feet of me, I pull my gaiter up over my nose, and put my head down. To my surprise and delight, he looks up at me and pulls a kerchief over his face. We walk past each other and nod.
A transaction has taken place. At 10 AM, I am exercising. At 10 AM, he’s buying Captain Morgan. But we lock eyes. The transaction is simple: I give a fuck about you. You give a fuck about me. The nod.
Here in Massachusetts, we had a bad go of it early on due to COVID-19. We have been closed down since mid-March and wearing masks for months. We are finally at a point where anyone could fairly say we are on the path to licking this thing. MA, like many other Northeastern states, wasn’t different. We were just first. We put our masks on. We made the tough choices. A lot of businesses are hurting, but we shut down, cold, believing that the best thing we could do was to get this over with.
We came close.
We didn’t “get this over with.” Today, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, and many other states are dealing with skyrocketing COVID-19 cases. Every day brings a fresh new record. And some in Massachusetts look to our southern border and say “we told you so” because all we see are videos of idiotic crowds on beaches, at bars, or at doomed family gatherings.
We Yankees love to ridicule the South. Search Google for “Florida Man” and your birthdate, and I guarantee you’ll get a chuckle. But that exercise is not a kind exercise. And from what I have seen, the most dangerous symptom of COVID-19 exposure isn’t shortness of breath. It’s a lack of empathy.
It’s a lack of empathy on both sides.
The reaction to COVID-19 has been politicized in a way that could not have been possible in previous global pandemics. It’s been weaponized by our media channels to increase ratings. COVID-19 tore through densely populated urban areas first, so the story of the virus from March through May was a story of New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. It didn’t affect people in Flagstaff, AZ., or Tulsa. It was easy for people in rural areas to see this as a problem that didn’t affect them because it was “city people” getting sick.
From George H.W. Bush (W’s dad, Poppy) until today, 47–49 of America’s top 50 cities have voted for the Democratic candidate for president. So for Republicans, early on, this entire disease was an overreaction by liberal Dems. Conservatives didn’t respond to it in the same way, because it hadn’t (yet) affected them to the degree that it was affecting old people in NYC or Boston nursing homes. They resented having one broad brush applied to everyone when it was clear that we all weren’t suffering from this pandemic in equal ways.
We still aren’t.
Today, the people who ridiculed “liberal snowflakes” for wearing masks are now testing positive in red states. And that has led to another, equally deleterious empathy gap — Northeastern liberals casting aspersions upon our southern brethren and sistren for just, well, “being stupid.” With COVID-19 cases spiking well above anything else we see in the world, it is very easy, and maybe very gratifying, for smart liberal folks in the states that were affected early to denigrate the citizens of Texas, or Oklahoma, or Florida, for — let’s just say it here — being idiots.
That might make my liberal friends feel better. Lord knows, I’ve slid into that slough of despond a few times myself. But as someone who has lived all over this great country, here is a truth that you can take to the bank: Northern, Southern, Liberal, Conservative — we all have our share of idiots. For every story you share about that poor Texas family reunion with 15 COVID cases, I can share a story of knuckleheaded liberal college students at a pool party who think they are somehow immune to COVID, or any other disease, for that matter.
The idiots aren’t the problem here. All sides of the political spectrum have their share of idiots. This is something different.
The “idiots” aren’t the problem because it is clear to see that the countries of the EU have largely completely contained COVID. Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand have clobbered this thing and been able to re-open businesses.
Do you think there are idiots in Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand? I am sure there are. Is the U.S. as a country “dumber” than those countries? I find it hard to believe that. We have given the world so much. But my liberal friends have been engaged in “Florida Man”-shaming just as much as my conservative friends have been treating COVID-19 as no worse than the annual flu.
The idiots and the educated in the countries that have handled COVID-19 well have had one thing in common — solidarity. Solidarity to their country, solidarity to the very idea that forms the bonds of their nations. In countries like Japan and South Korea, the commonalities have won out over the differences. Solidarity has prevailed. These nations wear masks to preserve their national identity because they share the same national identity. New Zealand-ness wins out over liberalism or conservatism.
Here in the U.S., “American-ness” is not winning out. I’m just going to say this, and maybe this is the point where some of you stop reading — the science on dealing with COVID-19 is overwhelmingly in favor of masks, limiting crowds, and continually washing/sanitizing our hands and minimizing contact with others. For every study you see posted that masks don’t help, there are 20 that say that masks do help. That social distancing does reduce the transmission of COVID. That avoiding bars and parties and concerts knocks this thing down.
But here we are, racking up new case records day after day after day. And people still won’t wear masks.
Why? Why won’t Americans do the little things that we have seen other countries do that would blunt the impact of COVID-19?
It isn’t “Florida Man.” Believe me, as a Bostonian, we have our own versions of Florida Man. And I grew up in northern Maine, where COVID-19 has not had a significant impact, so I totally get the sentiment from my childhood friends that this is all just an overreaction. It is 1000% crystal clear that the U.S. has botched its response to this pandemic. Our numbers are terrible. If you doubt that, then you can close this browser window. You aren’t good at math.
But I am left wondering why we have been so bad at this. For my liberal friends, I get that demonizing “stupid” people can feel good. But that’s not where I put the blame. We are trending poorly, not because of “Florida Man.” We are heading into a deep, dark, hole because of my smartest conservative friends. If you are reading this, my smart conservative and libertarian friends, I am talking about you.
There is a study that shows masks don’t help. There are 100 that show that they do, but there are one or two that show they don’t.
You shared that study. Probably felt good to share it! But you didn’t help.
There is a theory of thought that says our cases are only shooting up because of testing. It’s a well-presented theory. There are dozens more that demonstrate that isn’t the case. But you shared the first one. It didn’t help.
At every turn, you cherry-picked the science (and yes, actual science) that minimized the risk, claimed that things were not as bad as they seem, or painted COVID-19 as no worse than the flu. When deaths were high, you focused on the fact that it was only occurring in densely populated areas. When the mortality percentage declined, you went back to the “no worse than the flu” narrative, ignoring what it actually means to be sick from this thing. When told to wear a mask, you didn’t claim “personal freedom;” instead, you found the contrarian studies that dispute the efficacy of masks.
None of this helped.
Last Thursday, Arizona reported more daily cases than the entire European Union. The EU has 60 times the population of Arizona.
It is time for my smart conservative friends to step back and look at the big picture. What you have done to date has, let’s be honest, been driven by ideology. It has proven unproductive to argue, because, yes — you are finding published science that supports the narrative that COVID-19 isn’t so bad.
But it is so bad. Not will be, is. Can we now agree on that?
So here’s what I am asking. I’m not going to say you weren’t kind. I don’t believe that. I am not going to attack your empathy. I know you better than that. You are fundamentally good. Your past actions, however, have legitimized, given support to, and enabled Florida Man. And Oklahoma Woman. And Arizona student. Everyone has a smart friend. For many conservative Americans, you are that smart friend. And you have given your friends the ammunition they need to support their personal beliefs. And now we have a country where a significant portion of the population doesn’t think they need to wear a mask in public. It’s easy to say they are just being stupid. But I am going to say the hard thing — you told them, in so many words, that it was OK.
What I need you to do now, without shame, and without any further lecture, is just sit with the fact that you were wrong about this. Please — don’t give me another study. Stop sharing cherry-picked science. And please, start sharing concern. Start sharing alarm, even. Start sharing that if America can’t show the same solidarity that South Korea and Luxembourg can, that we are truly not a nation and there is no American Ideal. And our economy will lag behind the world for years.
This is me, walking up to you, right now, on a sidewalk. I want us to believe that there truly is an American ideal that transcends political party or ideology. I am pulling up my mask. Pull up yours. Give me the nod.