“Wear a mask!”
I stopped running and wheeled around to face the voice. “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.
My arm hairs went erect and my heart pounded, but I stood my ground. “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 did not walk easily. “What are you, a Trumpie?”
“You know nothing about me.” I stared into her dull grey eyes, buried beneath a sagging forehead.
“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, and my running sweat was already giving me a chill.
I smiled. “I thought you weren’t judging me.”
“I AM judging you!” she decided. “You deserved to be judged.”
I began to describe what she could not see: that I was the least likely person to transmit COVID to her, that I rarely left my house except to jog outside, and that I rarely wore a mask because I was rarely indoors or around people. I did not even go to the grocery store and my family bubble was tight. Moreover, I was an infectious disease epidemiologist working every day for the nation’s premier research center to save the world from COVID and other pandemic threats, just to keep people like her safe. I spent nights writing my COVID blog to help people navigate confusing times without losing their minds, even after I got a concussion after falling off a horse. I answered readers’ COVID questions until my headaches made it impossible. But not wearing a mask on a jog turned me into the bad guy. How simple people wanted the world to be.
But the trail was narrowing and we had lost our physical distance and sudden I became the one who felt unsafe, realizing I was in the “spew radius” of an unhinged stranger who was spitting as she yelled, not paying attention to her physical distance, and not wearing her mask properly. I wanted to say more about her misunderstandings, but I decided it was best to move on. I offered a cheerful “Well, have a good day!” over my shoulder as I trotted away, adding “Try not to judge people!”
I had been running in those woods for twenty years; she looked like she had never hiked a day in her life. Her harsh words could not sting me on my turf, under my oaks. But as I trotted home I knew our country was fucked. The mask issue had gone too far. People were no longer being rational. I understood why the woman yelled at me; she was scared. The pandemic was ripping through America, gunning for older, overweight people like her. She wanted to feel safe and my naked face seemed threatening. She was terrified by the image of invisible bugs emanating from my breath, carried along thermals into her nose. A mask had become a short-cut barometer for evaluating who was safe and who was not. America had found a new dividing line between sinner and saints. Only it had strayed too far from science.