By Greg Dawson
Disease-preventing masks are nothing new. They were also tried during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which is said to have infected about a third of the world’s population.

Besides 16 expired COVID-19 Antigen tests, about 100 masks, a few mini bottles of hand sanitizer, my vaccine card and a pulse oximeter, my only souvenir of the pandemic is a Publix receipt for $428.62 on April 14, 2020, when the Winter Park Village store held its first early-
morning, seniors-only shopping hour.

 I arrived before dawn to jockey for position with other 65-plus masked oldsters to be sure I was first inside when the doors opened to score the two items at the top of my list: Clorox wipes and toilet paper — twin Holy Grails of the pandemic’s early days. 

At the crack of 7, I race-walked to cleaning supplies on aisle 13 and found a gaping, empty shelf and a note: “Our apologies. We are temporarily out of this item.”

I came home with Persian limes, soy creamer, pickled beets, olive oil, sardines, peanut butter, apples, baby spinach, smoked sausage, flour, one pack of rationed Charmin and 82 other items — but my outing was a bust. 

Without Clorox wipes we felt defenseless against COVID. Imagine Mowgli in The Jungle Book returning to the village without fire to repel the evil Shere Khan.

The past four years have been a swirl and blur of disorienting happenings. The pandemic accelerated to warp speed — even as our sheltered lives slowed to a standstill. 

It was like staring out the window of a train and thinking you’re moving when it’s the train on a parallel track heading the other way. We were going nowhere fast. 

Reality bit hard in March. Reports of a mysterious contagion from China went from sketchy to confirmed and scary. Then, on March 11, a double whammy: The Utah-Oklahoma City NBA game was scrubbed just before tipoff when a Utah player tested positive.

The coup de grace: news was that Tom Hanks had COVID. Tom Hanks. Call us tools of a celebrified culture, but if America’s everyman wasn’t safe, no one was safe. We canceled a flight to Virginia to visit our first grandchild, Félicité. 

The NBA resumed play in July in the Disney World “bubble.” We resumed visits with Félicité in September, our families eschewing germy airlines and meeting halfway at Hilton Head where we created our own “bubble” in an Airbnb beach house. 

The pandemic sent out ripples of change and disruption to every corner of our lives. The Maitland Senior Center shut down, forcing my current events discussion group to Zoom, a steep tech challenge for some. We stopped going to movies and restaurants or even doing takeout. 

We had dessert every night, turning our kitchen into The Great Pandemic Baking Show with pies, coffee cakes and myriad versions of banana bread. One time we made hamburger buns just for giggles.

We pushed heavy doors and elevator buttons with our elbows. When ordering groceries online for pickup at the store, we kept the car windows closed, leaving a tip in the trunk for masked clerks who loaded the bags. 

At home, cans and cartons were wiped down with Windex or some other cleaner if we were out of cherished wipes. One day in May 2020, I excitedly emailed a friend in Texas. “Sick of Netflix yet? Highlight of the month for us: Scoring a triple-
pack of Clorox wipes at Target. Woo-hoo!”

Stir crazy, we emerged from hibernation in February 2021 to brave our first public gathering — a jazz band concert at the Apopka Amphitheater. Organizers chalked large squares on the grass to ensure proper distancing between concertgoers. It was a glorious afternoon but only a brief furlough from COVID captivity.

First entry on the ledger of loss are lives lost, a hard number. But how to calculate lives transformed, social bonds and fabric torn asunder?  

We live in Maitland, a stone’s throw from Lake Lily Park, a teeming circle of life, where you’ll usually find artists, exercisers, picnickers and meditators spread across the grassy spaces. 

Plus babies in strollers, kids on scooters, wobbly toddlers lurching at ducks and squirrels, young lovers and old codgers, puppies straining on leashes and joyful shouts from the playground. 

Candy kept a pandemic diary. She titled her May 13, 2020, entry “Masked Emotions:” It read:

“I feel like a completely different person than I was just three months ago. We are to wear a mask in public if there is a chance of coming closer than six feet from another human being. What about all the beautiful strangers and their children and dogs along the paths of our little Lake Lily? What about our small talks?

“The simple joy of my outer life has withered. I return home a bit more physically fit, but without those essential jolts of endorphins. Even if we are smiling beneath our masks, none of us can tell. Masked emotions. What is to become of us?”

The next day, a brief reprieve: “Today I chatted with a young mother and her one-year-old in the park. They were sitting in the grass on a blanket, giggling. Their smiles and laughter were so contagious I just had to pull down my mask to say, ‘Oh, she is so adorable. How old is she?’ 

“I was at least 15 feet away and we both felt safe and so thrilled to be conversing. How on earth could they have seen the joy on my face if I had been masked?”

On the day Candy started her diary, she observed: “Our lives will forever be referred to as before and after COVID-19.” What we didn’t know then is that there’d never truly be an “after.” 

Instead, there’d be a realization — facilitated by new vaccines and treatments — that the rewards of living normal lives are worth the risks of catching what for most of us feels like a case of the flu.

Even so, at this writing, February 2024, America’s COVID death toll quietly churns inexorably toward 1.2 million. To paraphrase a wise man, it ain’t over till it’s after. And this is as “after” as we’re likely to get.

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