Something’s been bothering me. It’s been festering since Memorial Day Weekend.
It was crystallized for me the other day when I turned the corner after walking just a few blocks from my home on my way to the neighborhood grocery store.
As I turned the corner, I spotted some activity in front of the new lunch spot that had just opened the day before. The menu looks appetizing: cheese steaks, burgers, salads, foot-long hot dogs, wings, tenders, fries and a variety of toppings.
There’s been a lot of turnover in that space over the years. Most recently it was a fancy taco spot and before that the specialty was grilled cheese. Years before there was a Subway there. The building itself is narrow with limited seating, including a few tables situated outside. There is some competition on the strip: a top-notch Jewish deli, Chinese takeout, a pizza joint and a Tex-Mex restaurant.
As I walked towards the sandwich shop, I spotted five young boys about 13 years old. They were sitting around a small table, no masks and inches away from one another.
I told this story to a few friends and there was an instant flash of recognition, suggesting that this is going on all over and not just with kids.
Everyone had a story, including one about group of Wall Street guys having a few drinks and a meal after a round of golf. They were situated in the same tableau as the teens, sitting casually around a dinner table, only in a fancier setting.
When I walk or ride my bike around town, I see people of all ages gathering closely together, no social distancing and no masks. Now that’s not everybody, for sure. But there are too many. Too close for comfort.
I imagine you have viewed the scenes of throngs of young adults sun bathing in a pool at the Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. The worldwide protests in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing seemed to bring everyone together and united in outrage in the fight for racial justice. And soon there are expected to be partisan rallies with packed houses of people who are being asked to sign disclaimers in the event that they become infected and seriously ill with COVID-19.
In all these situations – frivolous, deadly serious or politically motivated, the issue is not so much about only protecting oneself but protecting those with whom you come in contact after these gatherings – your loved ones, friends, colleagues, neighbors and strangers. No disclaimer protects them.
It is no surprise that with the beautiful weather and people having been sheltering-in for months, everyone was ready to be released and feel the freedom of walking the streets again, gathering on the sidewalks with neighbors and heading for the open spaces of local beaches, parks, playgrounds and ball fields.
And so many have been out of work for such a stretch that along with the freedom has come a return to work for the people whose jobs did not permit them to work remotely from home.
Kids were not allowed to finish their school years and for many their homes became pressure cookers as opposed to sanctuaries. We have all been more that ready to break out, spread our wings under the sun and embrace family and friends.
The timing for “opening up” has been influenced by an amalgam of science, politics, business, faith and personal belief. I believe strongly that opening up prematurely without adequate testing and contact tracing as well as consistent wearing of masks and social distancing is a formula for trouble and puts everyone at risk.
Nevertheless, I am afraid that complacency has set in.
Thinking back about the young teens sitting around the table at the cheese steak spot, I wondered to myself, what will it take for people of all ages to become aware of the potential consequences of such behavior? A vaccine may be our savior in the end, but why don’t we begin by practicing compassion?
What this means is first practicing self-compassion, taking good care of oneself. Then, listen generously, try to be fully present and practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. As the saying goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
In more present terms practicing compassion is simple: Wear a mask and keep your distance. That’s being kind. We are not nearly out of the woods. Not just yet.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, the leading children’s mental health agency on Long Island. The Guidance Center is seeing new and existing clients via telephone and video during the COVID-19 crisis. To make an appointment, call (516) 626-1971. Visit www.northshorechildguidance.org for more information.