My New Normal: A Socially Distant Sunrise and Masks at the Ready

Sunrise at St. Augustine Beach, Florida on May 22. Notice how the sun is keeping its social distance.

My new normal began with a drive to the beach at St. Augustine, FL. It is one of the closest beaches to where I live in Gainesville and I just couldn’t resist the idea of a socially distant sunrise.

As I left my home that day, as I do every day now, I make a final check before I go out the door. Keys? Check. Phone? Check. Wallet and ID? Check. Mask? Check. That’s my new normal. A mask has become just like the ubiquitous American Express Card… don’t leave home without it.

I am acclimating to my new normal with a slow drift toward incorporating socially sanctioned changes about how to interact in public into my routine. My life now is no longer governed by shelter-in place; it’s now more like accommodate-in-public.

In Gainesville, where a bit more caution is exercised than in other parts of the state, a mask or some type of facial covering is still part of our new normal. Go for a doctor’s appointment, don a mask. At hair and nail salons, masks are required for entry. The same applies to grocery shopping and visiting other retail store. Gyms just opened May 18; but most gyms want you to work out wearing a mask.

Outdoors, it’s a different story. When we are enjoying the Florida sunshine, most of us do not use masks. I have a mask in my pocket or hanging around my neck, when I go for my daily walks, but I seldom wear it, although I do have it handy just in case.

I usually keep a mask looped around my neck, as a just-in-case precaution, when I go for a walk.

Here in Gainesville, mask usage remains controversial. One friend who is adamant about not wearing a mask only half jokingly says she is planning to do her grocery shopping in a town 45 minutes away that is lax on masks. Another friend, equally anti-mask, gets her groceries delivered rather than wear a mask to the store. But she makes an exception for “emergencies” like gaining entry to a hair salon where a mask is the ticket in. Vanity does take precedence.

Then there is what can only be referred to as mask mishegas,the Yiddish word for craziness, on our local political scene. In the space of just a few hours our Alachua County Commission removed and then reinstated the facial covering requirement.

Briefly, here’s the story behind that story. Within minutes of the first vote, citizen activists called the move to take away the mask mandate something that showed “ disregard for the health and well being” of many residents. Then the Gainesville city commission made its own opinion known, saying it would keep masks a must. So the county changed its mind and got back on the mask bandwagon. Go figure.

Then we have our ubiquitous “Florida man” news stories with our top Florida man being Gov. Ron DeSantis. A former Florida Department of Health data expert says DeSantis may have manipulated COVID-19 data to make the case for reopening Florida. She’s a former employee as of mid-May because state officials fired her for “insubordination.” She says she was just trying to guarantee “accessibility and transparency” of the data. DeSantis has labeled the dispute a “non-issue,” even though more than 2,300 people had died of coronavirus in Florida as of May 25.

Customers at an outdoor cafe in Gainesville. Only the server is wearing a mask.

But yes, I do go out more now that Florida is at 50 percent “normal.” I took a ride around town to see what that percentage looks like. We’re lucky because we have a lot of restaurants with outdoor seating. For now, at these venues masks are optional for customers, but not for servers. Tables seemed to be set apart at a proper distance, but to my way of thinking, I see too many people crammed together at one table.

I worry whether we are going too fast too soon. I listen to the news reports and see the death toll climb. The number of coronavirus fatalities in the United States topped 98,000 at the time I published this article. The tally on those getting the virus had surpassed 1.6 million. Public health officials warn us about the likelihood of a second wave if we don’t take precautions. So, I remain a “masker.”

Me, I’m still spending most of my time at home, to hang out with my new best friend Zoom, for meetings, lectures, happy hours, dance parties, and other activities. Soon, I’ll be back to teaching classes again on Zoom. I added a new event to my Zoom repertoire this month, when I attended a bris or a welcoming ceremony for my second cousin’s newborn son. There were more than 50 of us in the Zoom gallery “attending” the happy occasion. All I’m missing out on now is a Zoom wedding.

Patients wait to see the doctor at a private medical clinic in Gainesville, FL.

There are changes at the doctors’ offices. At my clinic after Florida reopened, the waiting room was moved to the outside walkway where chairs were set up. A nurse asked the now standard questions about contacts and travel and also took my temperature. When I was called to see the doctor, I was whisked right in. Instead of the usual hour-long wait, I was in and out in ten minutes. When I exited, the room was wiped down. The buzzwords seem to be “move them fast.”

We have drive-through services at our public libraries now. We drive up to the building entrance and library employees (wearing masks) check to see what we have placed on hold and bring it out to us. Something like the old carhop service of yesteryear.

My hair salon is back. Masks are de rigor. No purses or extraneous belongings allowed in. All you can bring in with you is your phone, your car keys, and of course, your contactless credit card. I did a happy dance when I left. It had been a while.

Now there seems to be a lot of fervor to document our individual and collective coronavirus experiences. I am on the board of the Matheson History Museum,and we have our “COVID-19 Community Archive” online exhibition. At the University of Florida, the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program is launching a new oral history initiative about the pandemic.

Skateboarders defy an order not to skateboard. The skateboard facility has since been reopened.

Most parks are open, but one city action targeting skateboarders caused an outcry. City officials ordered mountains of mulch to be dumped in the bowls to keep skateboarders away from the city’s only skate park. Since skateboarding is an activity that by default encourages social distancing, it was hard to understand the rationale.

Another “Florida man,” Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe, explained that the city chose “to place mulch in the bowls to make it off limits. Not perfect, but not the end of the world.” But people in the community were angry — and loosely organized to clear the mulch away.

The kids are skateboarding again. And in proper tribute to “my new normal,” I went to the beach. “My” beach is generally not a busy one, so it was easy to avoid crowds, because there weren’t any. I had a mask around my neck in case one should suddenly be needed. But I had been away too long from the sand and the surf — it was time to close that social distance.

Even in the past, this St. Augustine beach was never packed with people. Which makes it a perfect beach for the author to visit. And no, I will not give away the exact location. I like it as it is, without too many of us there.

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Ronnie Lovler is a writer and editor, working on a memoir about her time in Latin America and her ongoing exploration of Western North Carolina.

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Ronnie Lovler

Ronnie Lovler

Ronnie Lovler is a writer and editor, working on a memoir about her time in Latin America and her ongoing exploration of Western North Carolina.

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