Last week, I ate indoors in a restaurant for the first time since March 15, 2020.

I still can’t quite believe it.

I’ve been taking the road from masked to mask-free slowly. When the mask mandate was lifted, I was jubilant — and unhesitant — about not wearing a face covering outdoors. But I still wore one indoors in public places.

I didn’t automatically think, “I’m vaccinated. I don’t need to wear a mask.” My predominant thought was that the people who had refused to get vaccinated were going to be the first to rip their masks off. I kept imagining myself as a fish in a school of COVID-19 carriers.

I was concerned, too, about my husband, Paul, who had radiation treatments last winter and also has asthma. I didn’t want to bring anything home to him.

As a school librarian, I had to wear a mask at work and had grown accustomed to keeping it on for hours. It was no big deal to pop one on for a 20-minute grocery market run.

I was used to wearing a mask. It had become a symbol of wise caution for me, like snapping on my safety belt as soon as I got into a car.

Yet, I wished I could recapture the feeling of freedom I had when I received my second Moderna dose in April. When the mask mandate was lifted in late May, I felt I was going backward as my anxiety grew, when I wanted to sprint ahead.

I told myself that if the number of cases continued to drop a month after the mandate ended — by late June — I would feel more comfortable taking my mask off indoors.

They have dropped, and since school let out for summer, my mask endurance skills had eroded. I was feeling almost ready, although I was still concerned about Paul’s compromising conditions.

Then, last week, we headed down to Brunswick to meet friends for lunch. We had selected a place that had outdoor seating, but the day was cool and windy. Much to my surprise, Paul said he’d be willing to eat indoors.

We sat in a booth with our vaccinated friends. There was no one seated near us. Our server wore a mask. It was almost a bonus that the food was really good.

I had taken a huge step forward, finally.

Two days later, Paul and I were at the Farnsworth Art  Museum in Rockland. It was a rainy day, and I think all of the midcoast had the same idea. Paul wore his mask, as he should have, but I didn’t, though I carried one in my purse. I found it was easy enough to keep my distance from people. If there were too many people in front of a particular painting, I could come back to it later.

And I found I still wanted to keep my distance.

The only time I was concerned was when a man sat down near me on the other end of a short bench. At first, he faced away from me. But then he swung his legs around so he was parallel to me. That was it. I got up.

Lunch was a completely different matter. We went early, hoping to avoid the crush, but the place was packed. There was nowhere to sit, and the tables were too close together for our comfort anyway. I was alarmed, and put my mask on. Luckily, we were able to get our takeaway lunches quickly. Unfortunately, the gloomy weather meant we had to eat in the car.

Better safe than sorry; I knew there was no way I was ready to eat in a crowded environment.

This was a good lesson, though. I am not ruling out masking; it is now on a need-to-wear basis. The other day in the supermarket, I had mine on but felt (for the first time) that I would be OK without it. That’s because there were few people shopping at that time. On a busier day, I would probably feel differently.

My birthday falls on the first day of summer. Last year, I was content to get a bagel and coffee to go, to eat with Paul by the river. What a treat that was. Last summer, we’d wear our masks on our arms at the beach, in case we couldn’t keep our distance. I was afraid to use public restrooms.

This year I was grateful to be able to go to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens to spend the day. How wonderful it was to wander around with so many other people and not worry.

But the pandemic is still raging in other parts of the world. Some countries that lifted restrictions have had to return to them. I pray that won’t happen here, but I think we all need to acknowledge that it could, and to be ready to do what needs to be done if it does.

Meanwhile, I need to go to the drugstore. I think I can go in without a mask. But I’ll take one with me. Just in case.

 

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].


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