In March 2020, I was on the way to the Portland, OR airport to fly to San Antonio for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference (AWP), the monster gathering to which all the writers, editors, publishers, teachers, and students of writing flock. As I drove, I kept getting disturbing reports. NPR told me that a state of emergency had been declared in San Antonio due to an outbreak of COVID-19. Okay, but we’d be safe in our hotel . . .
People I had been hoping to talk to at the conference sent emails and posted on Facebook that they were no longer coming. Our Antioch University MFA alumni reunion was canceled. My childhood best friend who lives in Texas called to say, “Don’t come.”
The conference went on, but I did not go. Instead, I spent a week visiting places in Oregon that I enjoyed, including The Grotto in Portland and the Oregon Garden outside Silverton. I shopped in Salem and saw the sights in Corvallis, where I joined a friend for lunch at a Chinese buffet. Within a week, everything would be shut down. Grotto, Gardens, stores, restaurants. Even the state parks along the beach where I live were blocked off sawhorses as we began that spooky time when COVID took over our lives, when we were afraid to go out, to touch our mail, or to touch each other.
If we did have to go out, we put on masks. I remember trying to make an old bandanna into a suitable mask and downloading sewing patterns that I never used. My more crafty friends started turning out homemade masks. Soon I had a whole wardrobe of them, including some made for singing with extra breathing space in front. Wherever there were other people, we were required to wear masks.
Women no longer needed to worry about makeup. No one would see most of their faces. We couldn’t tell if someone was smiling, frowning, talking to herself, or yawning. It was difficult to hear what people were saying. But we held onto our masks because people were dying of this disease, people we knew and loved. Even those who didn’t die felt like they might.
The arrival of vaccines in August 2021 gave us hope. One shot, two shots, a booster, another. Death rates went down. People were still getting COVID, but only the ones with other serious health problems died. The rest of us just got sick for a while and recovered. We think. The possibility of long-term effects and “Long COVID” worries us (Is that why I’m so tired?), but by now most of us seem to have experienced this weird disease that manifests in various ways and steals your ability to taste food.
The mask mandate has ended, except for health-care settings, and even that requirement is ending soon. We each get to decide whether we still want to wear a mask.
Do we think about COVID anymore? I do. When I told me doctor at my checkup that I had had it around the holidays, she said, “Me too. You’ll probably get it again.” Like it was no big deal. But it is a big deal. It killed Uncle Peter. It killed Cousin John. My friend’s son was in the hospital on a ventilator for months. It is a big deal. And yet . . .
I returned to AWP this year. It was held in Seattle, which was one of the first cities to report major outbreaks of the disease in 2020. More than 9,000 people attended the conference. We were jammed together in elevators, meeting rooms, and restaurants. We walked elbow to elbow along the crowded sidewalks. We hugged and hugged and hugged. Masks were recommended, but most people didn’t wear them. We touched books that many others had touched and held onto railings smudged with other people’s fingerprints. We took the chance. And yes, AWP was wonderful.
I don’t know who got sick afterward. I was so worn out I didn’t feel well for a few days. I tested myself twice for COVID and prayed while I waited for the results. Negative. I’m lucky. I knew I was taking a chance.
We have always risked illness when we’re among other people. Long before COVID, there were plenty of contagious diseases we could catch. But we didn’t worry about it. Now we do.
I rarely wear a mask anymore unless it’s required. But I keep one handy just in case. The pandemic has gotten easier to live with, but it’s not over.
How about you? Do you still worry about getting COVID in crowds? Have you had it? Do you wear a mask? Do you find you’re the only person wearing one sometimes?