By Marieke Slovin Lewis / Prescott, Ariz.
Talk about a shock to the system! I moved to Arizona on June 26, 2021, after I spent the past five years living in a small suburb of Brussels in Belgium and a farming community in France near the Belgian border. When I returned to the United States, it felt less like moving from one country to another as it was stepping through a portal into a different world.
The world I left was in the midst of a serious pandemic. People were lining up at vaccination centers at the end of the day, hoping for an extra dose. Staff members were stationed at the entrance to small shops to ensure customers were wearing masks and got a squirt of hand sanitizer as they came through the door.
Suffice it to say that anyone not wearing a mask stood out like a sore thumb.
To be sure, I forgot my mask at times and had to return to the house before running an errand, and I saw people dashing back to their cars in the grocery store parking lot to do the same. But overall, there was a general sense of solidarity. The signs I saw that read in Dutch and French, “Together against Covid,” were there more as gentle reminders that we were all in this together than as desperate attempts to urge people to get vaccinated.
During my time in Europe, I lived through three separate lockdowns and several month-long 6 p.m. curfews. Restaurants were closed nearly the entire time my husband Richard and I were living in France (the horror!?). My sanity and my marriage were on the brink by the time I was packing to return to the states.
I first flew to Seattle and then drove two and a half days to Arizona in a little Toyota with my three cats and big, white husky. There were large lit signs floating above every large highway that seemed to be pleading with people to get vaccinated, for the love of everything. I spent a night in Idaho and was shocked by the both the state of the motel room (not cleaned at all and with an empty carton of Chinese takeout on the bathroom sink) and the complete lack of masks at the restaurant where I ordered takeout.
Driving across one state to the next, I felt a bit like an alien from another planet, watching a foreign scene unfolding before me and taking notes to report back to the mother ship.
Had no one on the west coast gotten the memo about Covid? What was going on?
Arriving in Arizona, it was like the pandemic was over. In some ways, it seemed like it never even happened. A friend told me that the lockdown in Prescott at the start of the pandemic in 2020 only lasted about two weeks. While some people worked from home, it seemed like many went back to business as usual.
As I went to various shops to stock my refrigerator with grocers and get the basic necessities for my house, I immediately felt distinctly out of place with my mask and container of hand wipes at the ready.
I noticed that while there were signs that read “mask recommended for those who are not vaccinated,” these seemed to be merely suggestions and ones that were not adhered to by customers or staff. The staff were either not wearing masks or had them tucked down beneath their noses. I wondered if this was because they wished to protect customers from their exhalation but didn’t care about protecting themselves on the inhale.
Having lived in Arizona for a couple of years before moving to Europe, I knew it was a bit of a wild place. Arizona seemed like a region where people often refused to follow any rules or regulations, particularly if they came from the government.
Now back there, I wondered if people were worried about protecting themselves, let alone other people. I also had a sneaking suspicion that they might not believe there even was a pandemic with mutating viruses sweeping across the globe. At one point, I drove by a group of protesters holding signs with photos of Bill Gates. The thought occurred to me that there was some irony in being convinced that vaccines were a way to implant tracking devices while voluntarily uploading tracking information on the Internet by posting selfies on social media.
I felt very self-conscious with my mask on, and also worried that people might treat me differently because I was one of the vaccinated. To mitigate this fear of judgment, I tended to overcompensate with my behavior. At the small post office in a gas station by our house, I was overly friendly with the irascible staff person. I made sure to bring my dog because people tended to be friendlier when he was around. No one can resist a big, white husky with eyes as clear as the sky. I even took to not wearing a mask in some shops in the hopes of receiving better customer service (don’t worry Mom and Dad, this was an infrequent occurrence).
I pored over articles to find out if I was protected wearing my hardy KN95 mask and if I should avoid going into stores altogether. The consensus seemed to be that I was fairly safe wearing my mask, so I carried on adhering to recommendations by the CDC.
A couple months after landing in Planet Arizona, my mother-in-law in Seattle had a bad fall that required multiple surgeries. My husband and I began making trips back and forth to Washington State. I flew with the husky because all of the doggie daycare places in town were booked.. What had happened to our sleepy town? Was this a sign that there were some people who believed in the pandemic, who were working from home and had the time to adopt and look after a dog? The consensus among people I talked with was that the influx of people from California were to “blame” more than any repercussions from the supposed pandemic.
(Why people from an already drought-ridden part of the country would move to another way a very serious water shortage is perplexing to me, but that is a subject for another day.)
Flying to Seattle, it was clear that there were other regions in the country where people were taking the pandemic seriously. Masks were required, and people followed the rules. It was not until returning to Phoenix that I saw my first unmasked person, a large man with a mask bedecked in an American flag pattern pulled down beneath his chin while he waited at the baggage carousel.
I was back in the Wild West, where rules were meant to be broken if they existed at all.
The rule was there were no rules.
To be fair, there are places where people seem to be taking the pandemic to heart. I went for an exam at a local OB/GYN center, and both staff and patients were required to wear masks. Most of our friends have been vaccinated and wear masks. Many avoid going to indoor public spaces.
The main issue I have found since my return is the inconsistency with regard to the pandemic. At the dentist, the hygienist and dentists wear masks, but the secretaries do not.
The pharmacy staff at CVS and Walgreens wear masks, but the other staff members in the main storefront do not. I overheard one staff person complaining to another that they could not be forced to wear masks. This person had one on but pulled down beneath her nose.
Even shops like Trader Joe’s and Natural Grocers do not have any kind of clearly consistent policy among customers or staff. Some staff members wear masks. Others do not or do the “half-mask” beneath the nose.
This latter bit reminds me of the introduction of bicycle helmets during my childhood. We hated wearing them, but our parents made us. As a kind of act of childish rebellion, we would put them on without attaching the straps beneath our chin. This essentially rendered them useless, but what can I say? We were kids. I can understand a child not wanting to wear a mask, but these are adults.
To me, wearing a mask is like recycling. It can’t make things worse, and it is essentially the bare minimum I can do to help other people and the planet. I know that the 50 states of America have not been United in a very long time, but I guess I would have hoped that a pandemic might garner some solidarity and care for fellow compatriots. I wish I could say this was true out west. So far, however, the theme continues to be: Pandemic? What pandemic?
Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, singer-songwriter, yoga teacher, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education and writes music from people's life stories, using a method called Story-to-Song that she developed with a fellow doctoral student. She was recently recognized as a finalist for the 2021 Amateo Award for arts participation projects in Europe for her project, "On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration," for which she wrote songs with refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels, Belgium about their migration experiences. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She is currently living with her husband, three cats, and a big white husky in Prescott, Arizona.