“Wear a mask!”
I stopped running and wheeled around. “Pardon me?”
A middle-aged woman ambled towards me on DC’s Glover-Archibald hiking trail. She was alone and walked with a long stick. “Wear a mask!” she shouted again, closing to within five yards of me.
“Don’t judge me,” I glowered.
“I’m not judging you, I just want you to wear a mask,” she prattled on, continuing to approach me. She was overweight and walked with a staff. “What are you, a Trumpie?”
“You know nothing about me.” I stared into her dull grey eyes.
“I know you’re the reason 300,00 people are dead. Selfish people like you who don’t care.”
“You don’t think I care?”
“No! You’re selfish.” She caught up to me on the trail and we now walked side-by-side. It was a brisk November day, just a few days after Biden was elected President, and my sweat was already giving me a chill.
I smirked. “I thought you weren’t judging me.”
“I AM judging you!” she decided. “You deserve to be judged.”
I tried describe what she could not see: that I posed no threat. I was the least likely person to transmit COVID to her. I rarely left my house except to jog. I always wore a mask during my once-a-month shopping trips. I knew the science better than she. I was an infectious disease epidemiologist working every day for the nation’s premier research institute to save people from COVID and other pandemic threats. Threats she never even knew about. I spent nights writing my COVID blog to help people navigate confusing times without losing their minds, even after getting a concussion after falling off a horse. I answered readers’ COVID questions until my headaches made it impossible. I was not the bad guy. The world was not that simple.
But the trail narrowed and suddenly I was the one who felt unsafe, realizing I was in the blast radius of a stranger who was spitting as she yelled, not paying attention to her physical distance, and not wearing her mask properly. It was askew. I wanted to say more, but I decided it was best to move on. I shouted a cheerful “Well, have a good day!” over my shoulder as I trotted away, adding “Try not to judge people!”
As I trotted home I knew our country was screwed. The mask issue had gone too far. People were no longer rational. I understood why the woman yelled at me; she was scared. She wanted to feel safe and my naked face seemed threatening. The pandemic was ripping through America, mowing down older, overweight people like herself. A mask had become a shorthand barometer for evaluating who was safe and who was not. America had found a new marker to divide sinner and saints. America’s culture wars had bled into our pandemic response. Which was bad news for everyone.