A road trip through the red states, while the pandemic spikes

Masks at the Marriott? Not in Knoxville. We drove 11 hours just as the worst was coming. Here's what we saw

Published July 12, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Protective mask hanging on a rearview mirror (Getty Images)
Protective mask hanging on a rearview mirror (Getty Images)

So we found ourselves on the road during the pandemic. We knew it would almost certainly prove a bad move.

My wife and I were more than a little concerned. We are both getting "on in years," as they say, and I have a medical condition that puts me at greater risk. In the back seat of the car, we had provisions for the road so we would not have to stop until we reached the hotel we had Pricelined in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, along with a basket of cleaning supplies we hoped would keep us safe: a roll of shop towels (a pandemic discovery for which I plan to live longer—paper towels on steroids that you can rinse out and use again and again), a bottle of disinfecting bleach, various other sprays and wipes we had been using at home. 

We had determined to hit the road to help out our older daughter and her husband. They were lucky to have accommodating employers, but they had been struggling to work from home with a toddler, our first grandchild. Now our daughter's husband was being called back to be in the office a couple times a week, and their child care center was only now beginning to look at what it might mean to reopen.

Was this even a reasonably considered idea? After an exponentially chaotic response to the pandemic by the Trump administration — from repeatedly downplaying the threat in the first months; to putting Mike Pence, a man not of science but of relentless displays of faith, who had failed to act quickly during a public health crisis in Indiana during his governorship, nominally in charge; to the president himself looming next to, and talking over, health experts at his increasingly bizarre daily briefings; to pitting states against each other for urgently needed medical supplies; to politicizing the wearing of masks; to muzzling their own health experts; to, most recently, seemingly giving up on the whole thing and just wishing it away — the wacko conspiracy theory going by the name "The Plandemic" was an attempt to obscure the catastrophically real "No Plan-demic."

If we lived in Europe or in Asia, we could now reasonably make this trip. Now the EU countries were closed to us, in another measure of Trumpian American exceptionalism.

Naturally, the virus had now come a-courtin' to the South and the West, where it was fixin' to set a spell (OK, sorry, I'll stop that). Unlike many human beings, a virus does not discriminate; any human host will do nicely — whether he or she be called libtard or freedumb fighter.

In the face of this trend in the United States — 2.7 million infected, 135,000 dead (with 175,000 or more projected by October), 25% of the global deaths with only 4% of the population — we headed out of St. Louis toward other states that were now literally red on the pandemic maps. Various governors were variously attempting to both close their eyes to the threat and on-the-fly set some "on-your-honor" rules for reopening their economies.

Despite the messaging from the White House, the country had, for a while, done the right thing to flatten the curve. But Trump, Republican members of Congress and Republican governors had relentlessly pushed back in April for early reopening of the economy. If you are a member of a party that has fought since the days of Ronald Reagan to discredit the working of government, that does not believe in science or expertise of any kind, that is not willing to acknowledge even a reasonably objective view of reality, then pushing to reopen against all available evidence is a pretty simple thing to do.

We were traveling on the last weekend of June, when an already overloaded news cycle, following the president's lead, became nearly deranged. The New York Times had just reported that Trump and Pence had been briefed back in March that the Russians had offered bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of U.S. service members. Then Trump retweeted a retirement center resident in Florida shouting, "White power!"

A few months earlier, we had made the 11-hour trip to and from Charlotte during the testimony in the House impeachment proceedings, and what we were hearing from the radio at the tail end of June 2020 was perhaps even more surreal.

Friends and colleagues from Britain and the Netherlands had been aghast at the images of partiers in the Ozarks some weeks before. They were highly attuned to the Ozarks because of the Netflix series (which is actually filmed near Atlanta, in another red state getting redder on the COVID-19 maps). Of course, we've had the chance to feel a similar horror watching the opening of bars and beaches in the U.K., and Belgium and the Netherlands took quite some time to tamp down the rise in infections.

We had already seen numerous videos of unmasked people angrily confronting house rules — arguing in restaurants and grocery stores — and the poor employees who somehow had to deal with these toddler-level meltdowns by people who appeared, at least visually, to be fully grown adults. We steeled ourselves to hear something about it when we wore our masks.

A Paul Simon song from an album I had back in the 1980s was persistently on my mind.

Slip-slidin' away,
Slip-slidin' away,
You know the nearer your destination
The more you're slip slidin' away.

The sacrifices many of the American public made to tamp down the curve in March and April were being wasted by this urgent reopening. And the shared sense of caring for our neighbors, our fellow citizens, by wearing masks in public is nothing to sneeze at. But sneeze they do, and cough and, on occasion, even spit.

In taking this trip, we were following other family members who worked to bridge the gap to the reopening of the childcare center. But didn't that make it more risky to make the visit? Sure it did.

Still, we imagined, as the pandemic spiked in the southern and western United States, that governors would restate the rules and give the lead to their public health officials. Surely, at this point, they would. Wearing masks would become required. 

We all engage in magical thinking from time to time. You just don't want to see it in statements by your public leaders.

In any case, we determined to make the trip and do our best to remain safe by wearing a mask whenever we were in public.

Various memes resonated for us, from the earnest (I wear a mask not to protect myself, but to protect you), to the true-but-unlikely-to-woo (A mask is not a political statement. It is an IQ test), to the How-Are-You-Not-Getting-This? (If I'm naked and I pee on you, you get pee on you. But if I'm wearing pants and pee on you…).

But mask wearing (or not) had become another culture-war distraction pushed by radio and television personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. 

The mask is largely supposed to protect others, but when others don't wear a mask or halfheartedly wear a mask (with, say, their noses exposed) it is natural to want, defensively, to have more protection for yourself. I started wearing a mask that my wife sewed in the early weeks of the lockdown (with a place to tuck in a filter) underneath my face gaiter. As I would leave a grocery store, once I was safely away from others I would peel down the gaiter and then the homemade mask. I imagined there being yet another mask beneath that one, at some point, like a bleak pandemic version of the hilarious "Pin-up Special" sendup of old-timey stripper movies that Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs did for GQ in 2011. My version would, of course, not be titillating — but I hope it would be nearly as effective in reducing my exposure.

As some readers of Salon might remember, I had been reading the "Federalist Papers" during the pandemic — and I still have a long way to go. I'm trying to figure out how these articles in favor of a strong federal government became the darlings of the conservative right. In any case, this passage, by Alexander Hamilton, resonates in the face of, well, unmasked faces: 

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraints. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons. Regard to reputation has a less active influence, when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one. A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity. 

Power in numbers, then, whether we are doing good or ill. And it is something Trump has capitalized on; encouraging his followers with truly deplorable views (yeah, we knew she was right; back then it just seemed like a mistake to say it out loud) to crawl out from under whatever stones they had been under into the bright artificial light of a rally in some city in a red state and scream about their freedom to wantonly misbehave.

And then there was the Obama administration's pandemic playbook that the incoming Trump administration tossed aside, with nary a glance. And then, for good measure, tossed aside the pandemic response team itself, possibly worried they might bring up that damn playbook again.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted there had never been a pandemic playbook, until he was later forced to admit that, yes, there was. One day this effort to lie and dissemble (and many others of the era) should be written up and published in the Journal of Endless Gaslighting.

Politico published the playbook back in March, and I spent an hour or so reading through it the other day. Gosh, it is a real thing, just as one might imagine. And within it are rubrics for decision-making and examples from other real-life pandemics.

So here we were, pulling into Knoxville, Tennessee, armed with our masks and cleaning supplies, but unarmed in terms of national or state-level leadership.

At the hotel (a Marriott, but does it really matter?), we donned our masks and rolled our bags in — only to find nearly all the guests blithely walking through the lobby mask-less and in groups. As with most establishments at home, there was a plea to wear a mask posted on the door and some general advice by the elevators, but little or no enforcement.

White fragility clamps the lid on any discussion of the state of race relations in this country, but class fragility does the same with any discussion of moderating the yee-haw capitalism practiced in this country. So how can one really expect hourly employees to do the enforcement?

After giving our hotel room a good cleaning, we attempted to walk a bit around downtown Knoxville but were eventually thwarted. There were just too many people out and about, only about a quarter of them wearing masks.

In Charlotte, we mostly hid out with the family. I made a few forays to the nearby Harris-Teeter to pick up some things, but it was crowded and, not really knowing the store, I found myself circling back too much. Every customer I saw was wearing a mask, though a few employees were breathing freely with their noses.

Again, I was conscious of how lucky we all were: lucky to have jobs that could be done remotely and to have employers who understood the gravity of the situation and planned accordingly and humanely. We were able to make the trip because I had vacation time to take. But what about parents without such family resources, or parents with multiple children, or single parents? 

In my most fearful moments, when I would think of putting on multiple masks in some sort of useless gesture of self-defense (masks, of course, mostly protect the people you encounter), I would think that my wife and I were being unwillingly pulled into the fevered Darwinian plan, put forward by Trump and other Republicans, that we sacrifice ourselves for the economy. We were risking ourselves, yes, but for the family — and we would never have been put into this position except for cascading failures in the U.S. response to the pandemic, which are ongoing. Even now, hospitals in red states are reporting they lack personal protective equipment and are running out of ICU beds.

A couple of days later, I was standing in the Common Market in Charlotte after ordering a sandwich. A man walked in, coughed deeply and with evident satisfaction, and then, looking at me, slowly put on his mask. It was clear he was doing it just so he could order (the shop requires masks). I walked back outside. As I waited for my order, I kept my gaiter up and thought about how many people would not survive this because so many of us have refused to work together since the anti-government infections shed by Reagan and Newt Gingrich. 

In my mind, the Paul Simon song insisted itself again. I thought of my grandson, my daughters, my wife, my extended family, of the fragile beauty of the environment and of life itself:

I live in fear
My love for you's so overpowering
I'm afraid that I will disappear

Slip-slidin' away
Slip-slidin' away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you're slip-slidin' away.

Already we are in our last few days in Charlotte. This morning, my wife and I went for an early morning run through some of the streets in Plaza Midwood, admiring the architecture of many houses. Along the Plaza, we passed an older man who was walking and wearing a mask. We turned back and exchanged good-morning greetings. I asked him how he was doing. He said, "I'm still alive. Thank God!" 

When we were out of earshot, I said, "And thanks to your decision to be sensible."

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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