We’ll Never Unring This Bell

There are many ways to say something is irreversible. We have all heard expressions like “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” “The cat’s out of the bag” and “You can’t unbreak an egg.”Any one of those phrases gets the speaker’s meaning across pretty clearly: There’s no going back to the way things were before.

I like all of those statements. But, there is one I like above all others due to how it really does land right between the ears with an unmistakable sound:

You can’t unring this bell.

I live in Oakland. And being here in the San Francisco Bay Area, people have generally erred on the side of caution ever since Covid began. So, even as more people got vaccinated this year, many businesses still held to the indoor mask mandates that had been implemented by area politicians and health boards more than a year ago. And while I stopped wearing my mask when walking around outside, I tried to be a good kid and would put the thing on when going into the grocery store, coffee shop or anyplace else indoors aside from my home.

That was until the magical day of June 15. This was when our much-maligned governor, Gavin Newsom, said California could “open up”. Of course, the definition of “open” was still open for some local interpretation. 

Stores and businesses could operate at full capacity, if they so chose. Some places even said wearing a mask wasn’t necessary if you had been vaccinated. It was a bit on the honor system; Peet’s Coffee wasn’t checking Covid cards at the door or anything. And if a store had a sign on its door asking that customers still wear a mask inside, well, I dug the cover out and stuck it on my face. This went on for a couple of weeks, and then my family and I headed north for our annual summer drive to visit my mom.

And as soon as we got out of the Bay Area, wearing a mask anywhere became little more than a mild suggestion. Through three states and 15 hours on the road, masks were almost nowhere to be seen. Not at the McDonald’s in Corning, California. Not at the Dutch Bros. drive-up coffee shop in Grants Pass, Oregon. Not at the truck stop near Vancouver, Washington, where we filled up on gas for the last time on our drive. For the next week, a mask covered my face only when I took my mom for a doctor’s appointment and the times when my wife and I went to Costco. Other than that, it was facial freedom everywhere we went.

It went on this way for the next week in Tacoma. And for the rest of July after we got back to Oakland. The masks were off. We were done. And things were getting back to normal. Until they weren’t.

August 1 was my four-month anniversary of getting my Covid vaccination. And I got to celebrate it by having to wrap a damn piece of cloth over my face in order to legally go into my local grocery store. The Covid paranoia was back in waves, thanks to something called the Delta Variant. Cases were up among the unvaccinated. There was talk about “breakthrough” infections among those of us already vaccinated. And you can believe that with schools re-opening, and the necessity of getting kids back into the classroom foremost on everyone’s minds, fear levels started going through the roof, again. Almost two years after this shitstorm began, we were back in the paranoid thick of it.

And it’s getting thicker than ever. And by that, I mean the governmental and societal arm-flailing and hair-pulling in reaction to the most-recent U-turn in the Covid Era, the Omicron Variant. 

Omicron is spreading so fast everyone will soon get it. Or, they won’t. Delta remains the source of most new Covid cases in the U.S. Or, it isn’t. We are told to get our booster shots. But, even the vaccinated are getting Covid. So, what good are the vaccines? Well, they keep you from getting not so sick when you eventually get the Covid that the vaccinations were supposed to keep you from getting. Simple, isn’t it?

The governor is now saying that all kids attending public schools from the age of 5 on up will have to be vaccinated by next fall. Our fifth-grader came home for Winter Break with a pair of school district-supplied take-home Covid tests. The kids didn’t have to take these tests to come back to school, but were told to just go ahead and take them anyway.

Almost every day, we get an update from our daughters’ schools to remind us of the seemingly always changing Covid protocols to adhere to should you think you might have Covid…Or, apparently, if you have even heard the word “Covid”. The school district’s flow chart of what to do if you have a sniffle is only slightly less convoluted to figure out than the U.S. federal income tax code. One of our daughters is in seventh grade and I fully expect that she will still be wearing a mask at school when she graduates five years from now.

Our president has brought out what for many is the sword of tyranny by saying companies with more than 100 employees must vaccinate their entire workforces, or have workers tested every week. And since power unchecked abhors a vacuum, power is being used to fill any and all gaps where there was any wiggle room for individuals to make decisions about their behavior for themselves.

We have bought tickets to the theater of the absurd, and it just gets more absurd every day. That indoor mask mandate? Well, it says that I have to put a mask on my face, and keep it there, for the entirety of the 90 seconds it takes me to go into my local Japanese restaurant to pick up dinner to go. But, if I want to sit down and spend 45 minutes working on my pork tonkatsu and a bowl of edamame, I can let my bare face fly the entire time as long as I am “actively eating and drinking.” I guess Covid knows to avoid you if you’re sitting in a booth with a Sapporo in front of you for the better part of an hour.

Around where we live, we are back to people driving in their cars, alone, completely masked up. And also putting on their bank robber attire as they walk anywhere outdoors. School districts are requiring teachers to be vaccinated. The statewide indoor mask mandate went into effect on December 15, and was supposed to last until January 15. Of course, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest when this week that mandate was extended to February 15. I also have no doubt that there is absolutely zero chance it will be lifted by then. Or at any time in the next year.

As if things weren’t sideways enough, we are now learning the term “sickout”. This is what the teachers at my daughter’s middle school have planned for this Thursday. We’ve already been told that, because of Omicron fears, the teachers are all calling in sick on Thursday as “an act of defiance” to get the school district to “drastically improve” the health and safety conditions of schools in our city. I don’t know if they expect the district to just close up shop and start major HVAC work right now, or give them new masks every day. I’m sure the teacher’s union has no role in this at all (our teachers went on strike three years ago, and have a long-time rocky relationship with the school district), and this won’t lead at all to any major disruption in our kids’ education this year.

I’m not sure what I hope to achieve by writing this screed. Maybe the fact that I started this more than three months ago, but am only just finishing it up here in January is indicative of how the whipsawing over Covid has affected people’s behavior in general. Back in the summer, Covid looked to be on the way out. And then, as vaccinations spread, things got worse, freedoms got restricted, anger rose, sensibility waned, name-calling grew and hope for a return to normalcy vanished. It was like when you’re driving home at night, you hit a detour, and you don’t know if the road you’re on now will get you back where you want to be.

The fear isn’t going away. Reactions to the next round of bad news are only going to get more extreme. We should get used to the sound of that bell, because it will never be unrung.

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