PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. — Observation these past couple of months confirms that there are two types of pandemic people — those who follow the rules and those who don't.
How this breaks down exactly is hard to know, though certain assumptions are fairly safe. Hardest-hit areas naturally would tend to be more attentive to social distancing, while people in states or regions with lower infection and death rates from COVID-19 might understandably be less patient with government-ordered behavior modification.
Everyone wants to return to normal, which doesn't only mean getting back to work and reviving the economy. Mostly, people just want to be able to hug again, to see their friends and family, to make a dash to the store without having to think about gloves, masks and sanitizers.
And yet my sense from talking with dozens of people is that many Americans don't plan to return to regular order any time soon, no matter what the politicians say.
I'm one of them.
Obviously, everyone's experience with the pandemic has been different. People in urban areas who've been stuck in apartments with or without others may feel like their heads will explode if they don't escape soon. In some places, including here along the South Carolina coast, people have hardly slackened their pace. The path I take for morning walks is busy with cyclists, walkers, runners and golf carts, though nearly all make efforts to maintain a safe distance.
Although South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday extended our state of emergency for 15 more days, last week he reopened retail shops and gave local governments authority to reopen public beaches. Not that it matters much. Many stores remain closed and some counties along the coast voted to continue the beach ban anyway. Retailers, meanwhile, have adopted their own policies. A few stores require shoppers to don masks and gloves before entering. Publix leaves it up to shoppers; The Fresh Market requires masks but not gloves. The General Store, a boutique grocer that carries organic meats and vegetables, requires that you put on a pair of their gloves over yours. I don't mind.
That's because rule-abiders like me happily keep six feet away from other shoppers and pay attention to aisles that are clearly marked one-way to avoid face-to-face encounters. Then there are the others — no mask, no gloves, oblivious to directional instructions. These rebels also tend to follow behind others too closely. They go the wrong way up a one-way aisle. I hold them in contempt and try to keep away.
These inconsiderate offenders belong to the school that thinks our national response to the virus has been overblown, despite extensive data that social distancing works to tamp down contagion. They seem not to care, or understand, that the masks are worn primarily to protect others, not oneself. Given that estimates of up to half of those with COVID-19 don't know they are infected, exposing your face in the time of pandemic is equivalent to saying you don't care about other people.
Suffice to say, I'm a rules gal. Oh, I'll sometimes merge without hitting the blinker — or occasionally toss a beer can into the regular trash — but when it comes to plagues, I'm all in. The family obsessive-compulsive gene did not skip my mother's womb while I was in residence. My paws are so dry from hundreds of 20-second scrubbings, I could sand a barn bare-handed. My front hall table, once a display of rare objects and heavy books, is now a repository for masks, gloves, medicinal sprays and gels.
Experts who study such things say it takes about 66 days to form a new (good) habit. Not surprisingly, you can form a bad one in two days. Having been following The Rules now for about nine weeks, my pandemic persona is fully formed and unlikely to change until my right arm has been punctured with a COVID-19 vaccine.
My cohort of friends and family report likewise. Which probably means that some percentage of the population will be masked and gloved indefinitely, uncomfortable with more change until whatever future awaits us unfolds. It is probably only fair to report that my masks have a pink fringe stapled along the top.
Generalizations are, needless to say, a columnist's last resort, but I feel safe in predicting that normal isn't coming back, at least not as we've defined it before. Germany is installing mask vending machines. Etiquette books may soon feature social distancing as good manners. Sanitizers undoubtedly will be repackaged in amulets, charms and decorative bottles. It's likely that first dates on Zoom have already become a Best Practice. The world changes. We learn and adapt. Most of us survive. The rule breakers will always be with us. But it would be much more helpful if everyone would play by the rules a while longer. Every life depends on it.
Kathleen Parker's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.