Am I safe for you to share space with? What are the cues that you use, consciously and unconsciously? What is your radar looking for?
Human beings and animals unconsciously look for signals of safety or danger as we encounter each other. We used to rely on body language and facial expressions to tell us whether a person was physically and psychologically safe to be around or interact with.
With the pandemic, the type of danger we now pose for each other is invisible. What you are scanning for is whether I pose a risk of infecting you. There may not be visible signs that I am infected. There may be no runny nose or cough or red eyes. I may not know that they are carrying the virus. So we are all coming to rely on other cues – safe or unsafe behavior. When you encounter me you look at what I am touching with my hands. Am I wearing a face mask? Am I aware of my distance from others and doing what I can to keep safe distance? I either help you feel safe or not based on these things. These are what our safety radars are now scanning for. And this is relatively new, so it is still stressful to get used to.
This radar is actively scanning any time we leave home. Seeing people wear masks, we relax. No mask, we are on caution. Several people talking at safe distances, we are happy. Too close to each other, we feel threatened. All of these calculations happen consciously and unconsciously. Our radars will become a much more active as stores and other activities open up. This is an added stress we aren’t fully used to yet.
Stores like Costco and Mendard’s are now requiring face masks of all customers and that we keep at least 6 ft spacing from each other. We can only touch products in order to put them in our carts. We can’t feel fruits or vegetables and then return them to the display. If we see someone doing so, we wonder what else has been touched. Airlines will require face masks to board their planes. These requirements will signal to their employees that they are as safe as we know how to make it. And it will signal the same to us as customers. The safety radar gives us a green light in those places.
Then there are stores that will only request or suggest that we wear masks. Knowing this, our radars will signal caution. If we go in anyway, radar blips will go off as we see people without masks or not keeping safe distance. We know full well by now that some people in our communities won’t wear masks or keep safe distance as a matter of some sort of principle. Some store owners feel the same way. So if stores won’t do all they can to protect their employees and customers, blips of danger go off on the radar. These signals will move us to avoid those situations in order to be safe.
Some stores say they will only do the minimum that the state requires them to do. Caution! Anyone who only does the minimum because they have to is not fully appreciating the nature of the risk of COVID-19.
Some of us are vowing now to only shop at stores that require masks while others are boycotting them. For many of us, the requirements of masks and safe distance signal safety, that the store cares about everyone’s safety. They will do what they can, not just the minimum.
Some people and stores think we should trust their judgment about safety instead of requiring standard safe practices. It is unreasonable for me to expect you to trust my judgment when you don’t even know me. Furthermore, I am fallible; I can slip up. Do I always catch my hand before it touches my face? Don’t I wish! Our radars won’t give people a green light who think we should trust them when the don’t follow best practices. There is too much uncertainty. How can we know what they mean by safe? A small percentage of employees admit to not following safe practices at work. No, I won’t trust their judgment. I need their employers to require safe practices of them.
Early in this pandemic people were fond of saying that we are in this together. Now it is clear that we are not. Some people haven’t even bothered to educate themselves about safe practices, despite the best efforts of public officials and medical experts. Some people are misinformed and act like experts. A few are actually hostile toward people wearing masks.
Some people don’t realize that they still need to protect the medical system from being overwhelmed so their neighbors can get the elective surgeries that are on hold, and the hospitals can begin to financially recover. Their awareness and concern does not extend beyond themselves.
Sadly, we are not in this together. Some people have opted out. While the public health threat may be from a small minority, they may be enough to keep this thing spreading if we don’t require things of them.
Picking where we shop based on requiring best practices is the best we can do to protect our health care workers, hospitals, store employees and each other. Hopefully it will encourage more business to have these requirements, rather than subject us to the least people are willing to do.