The café I manage remains closed because of COVID-19. I go in every day or two to do some cleaning, to organize cabinets and wipe down shelves and re-think original concepts that proved unworkable or overly-ambitious.
I do all this with an eye to the calendar, knowing that time is passing even though it feels like it’s standing still, and that I will have to make the decision, one day soon, to re-open.
Strangely enough, the decision is mine to make, even though I’m not the shop owner. The owners have decided to leave the re-open up to me, more or less, which might be a sign of their confidence in me, I don’t know. All things being equal, I’d rather be the one deciding than the one being told what to do.
But all things are never equal, and no matter how I parse it, it feels a bit like an abdication. Yes, those who do the work ought to have a say in how and when, and even whether, the work is done. But where does the responsibility of ownership lie? As I look around at businesses that have re-opened, or that never closed, I’m seeing the job of enforcing safe re-opening protocol falling to those front-facing workers who must tell resistant customers to wear masks, to stand apart, to wait their turn. I know that when I re-open my cafe, I will be placing myself and my crew in that position, and given the mixed bag of behaviors I’ve witnessed, it’s hard to feel good about it.
In my community, some people are paying attention to mitigation guidelines, shopping solo, maintaining physical distance, using hand sanitizer, wearing masks. In other places it’s the Wild West, as a friend of mine remarked after going to a home improvement center and finding himself in the midst of a jostling crowd, his the only mask in sight.
So I wait, and I wonder, once we open, then what?
Because even if everyone is super-chill about our heightened sanitation protocol, my crew and I are still the contact points for potential contagion. Every person we serve can bring in or take away more than any of us intended. We can sanitize counters and wipe down door handles and wash our hands all day long, but the greatest danger is in the sharing of space. The more people we share our space with, the greater our risk.
And the risk is going to go on for a long time.
You can say it’s always been so, and of course it has. Though this virus is supercharged and more deadly because of its novelty, we go through something not entirely dissimilar every flu season, and I can’t remember the last time I attended a large gathering and didn’t come home with some kind of crud in my lungs.
Some folks get eaten by bears. Life is risky. Yes, it is. But why this risk? Why are we feeling the pressure to accept it? To what end?
Well, we all know to what end. We’re re-opening our shops and restaurants and work spaces in order to get the money flowing. But once that money is flowing again, then what? We’ve just kicked the can farther down the road in the hope that the fear of getting sick will subside into the undifferentiated background anxiety that is part and parcel of this culture, co-mingling with every other risk that we take on in order to keep that money flowing.
There’s got to be a better way.