A resident of our fair town recently posted the following rejoinder to busybodies (like me) who complain about people who refuse to wear face masks in public: "I was hiking in Foothills Park yesterday; I needed all the oxygen my lungs could breathe in. I could not have managed that hill if I was wearing a mask."
As a runner, I can confirm, dear neighbors, that the hiker in question is in good company. A very large number of our fellow citizens are also ignoring this simple public health directive.** Accordingly, although I address my comments to the anonymous poster, I invite the rest of the town to listen in.
To begin with, I would respectfully suggest that these are exactly the type of folks — huffing and puffing, sneezing and wheezing — who should be wearing a mask, if not for their own health, then for the rest of us. At the very least, it can be worn around the neck and raised to cover nose and mouth when, like Oedipus, we encounter a stranger on the path.
If that's too much to ask, and one finds oneself gasping for air in the foothills, here's a quick mental exercise to try: Picture yourself — or one of your parents — gasping for air in an Intensive Care Unit, strapped to a gurney, plugged into a ventilator, shrouded in a plastic tent, surrounded by health care workers dressed as if they have just come from outer space, as your lungs slowly (or quickly) turn into a brick and your family pays their final respects to you on Zoom.
I am mildly asthmatic and I know a bit about breathing: COVID-19 is worse. A lot worse.
Perhaps our maskless hiker is thinking, "But I'm young and healthy and I'm not shedding any toxic, virus-laden droplets, so why should I inconvenience myself?" My response is simple: Nobody knows that. Period. Full Stop. Even someone tested last week has no idea whether they were subsequently exposed to this deadly virus and are at risk of infecting others.
Look up the word "asymptomatic" in the dictionary. Did any of those well-documented "super-spreaders" of the virus deliberately set out to infect their fellow churchgoers, family members or teammates? Unlikely.
Yes, it's an imposition, but let's put it in perspective. I grew up hearing stories about World War II and the "impositions" my parents' generation were asked to endure as the war raged: blackouts in London; Victory Gardens in Chicago; ration cards; donations of everything from blood plasma to scrap metal in support of the common effort.
By contrast, wearing a face mask in public doesn't seem like a lot to ask. Hyperbole, you say? There seems to be some misconception that, because we appear to have "flattened the curve," the war against the coronavirus has been won. Sorry to puncture that particular fantasy, but the point of flattening the curve is not to shorten but precisely to extend the length of the pandemic so as not to overwhelm the health care system in its early stages (as happened in New York and Milan).
It's worth recalling, in this regard, that the Spanish flu of 1918 came in waves: The first was relatively mild and many politicians dismissed it as seasonal flu (sound familiar?). With people's defenses down and their immune systems compromised, the second wave struck in September and went on to kill between 50 and 100 million people, depending on who you read and how you count.
It's only May. Barring a miracle (or a presidential decree), this highly infectious virus will be with us for a long time. About a thousand Americans are dying from it every day. The Fake News calls it "an incalculable loss." I agree.
Our pervasive sense of denial is abetted by the sheer unreality of it all: gentle breezes are blowing; melodious birds are singing; fragrant flowers are blooming; the foothills beckon ... and by the time this column is published, 100,000 Americans will have lost their lives and 40 million will have lost their livelihoods.
I finally begin to understand the genius of the Surrealists with their melted clocks and improbable contrasts: Lautréamont's "chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table" suddenly feels banal and everyday.
So please, reluctant face coverers, spare us the dissecting table (and the autopsy table) and wear the damn mask. It's not that hard, and refusing to do so is anti-social, irresponsible and unethical.
Let's all do it for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for the doctors, nurses, paramedics and ambulance drivers who are, literally, dying to help us out if we, or the stranger who passes us on the hiking trail, gets sick.
Barry Katz is a longtime resident of Palo Alto's Ventura district. He is a long-distance runner, a mild asthmatic and prides himself on being an asymptomatic public nuisance.
** Editor's note: Santa Clara County strongly recommends that people wear masks outside of their home but does not require masks to be worn while engaging in recreational activities. The order states, however: "People are recommended to have a face covering with them and readily accessible when exercising, even if they're not wearing it at that moment."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.