Yesterday, I had a “cough window” installed at the cashier counter at Erica Mall. Coming or going, aerosol pathogens will no longer have a direct route to the mouths and noses of employees or customers, which is a good thing. I had one instruction for the pros that installed it: make sure that when the day comes to take it down, it won’t leave scars on the counter.
Something occurred to me today: it will never come down.
I was no trail-blazer. Grocery stores and other “essential services” providers all across the country were days ahead of me in installing such stuff. We all now have these heretofore unknown safety shields, barriers separating customers from staff. To everyone’s surprise, they are now all in place, securely mounted and labeled, and none of us will ever go back. It is just one more step away from the Age of Innocence.
No one knows how the coronavirus end game will play itself out; but we do know that there will never be an “all-clear!” signal, telling us that worries of deadly communicable disease is a thing of the past. Cough screens and gloves and face masks and maybe even six-foot-degrees of separation are here to stay. We are rightfully scared, and Chinese propaganda that tells us that a green light is coming soon is of no reassurance. With every new death, now 1,000 a day in the US, we will become more and more wary, more frightened, less social and less willing to tear down these “temporary” barriers that give us hope of safety.
I remember (what seems like not so long ago) strolling into the Birmingham, Alabama airport, passing security guards with a wave and a smile, and walking straight to my departure gate without any checkpoint, without any x-ray screening and certainly without a revealing body scan or a pat-down by inconsiderate hands. I got on the plane, landed at Toronto Pearson, and went on about my business. I never had to take off my shoes.
Airport stories like that are now ancient lore, we all know that transportation security routines are firmly in place and will never end. We have given up privacy and convenience in exchange for personal safety.
And so it goes now, with a simple trip to the convenience store to buy a Snickers bar. Or an appointment to have a tune-up and oil change, a visit to the library, or the impossible wish to have a nice meal at our favorite restaurant. Ways will be found to make these things doable again, but all of what used to be simple transactions, all of what used to be innocent and easy will remain one or two steps harder than everything we have ever known.
We will get by, but it will come with a price. And the Erica Mall window is here to stay.