“Wear a mask!”
I stopped running and wheeled around. 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 repeated, 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 grey eyes.
“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 to the grocery store. I knew the science, being 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 her. 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 from saints, our culture wars bleeding into our pandemic response. Which was bad news for everyone.