My Mistake One Year Ago Led To Covid-19: Pandemic Realities Vs. Culture Wars

A surgical mask, light and effective, can save your life — and the lives of others

I’m a travel writer who hasn’t been traveling at all, but my year-long journey could be of interest.

On March 11, 2020, when about 4,000 people had died of the virus around the globe, the World Health Organization made the assessment that “Covid-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”

A year later, in the United States alone, more than 520,000 people have died, and 1,500 a day are still dying from Covid-19. Most Americans have still not yet been vaccinated, and dangerous coronavirus variants are increasing.

Yet this week, Texas and Mississippi governors removed all restrictions on businesses — and removed mask mandates.

The last time I was indoors in a restaurant was exactly a year ago, on March 6, 2020, when I attended a press luncheon in Miami. I was becoming aware of the dangerous virus, despite our president’s repeated assurance that “Everything is really under control.” I had in fact reluctantly cancelled a trip to New York City two weeks before, even though I was scheduled to talk to two groups about my new book.

I felt obligated to go to the luncheon, and I figured I was in Miami, where it seemed very few people had yet caught the virus, unlike in China, Northern Italy and New York, where things were starting to get really bad. I told myself “it was only this one last time,” like someone rationalizing sex without protection.

Sitting indoors at the restaurant, I did not yet fully realize that Covid-19 spreads largely by airborne droplets, and by asymptomatic people. No one wore masks and social distancing was not yet in the guidelines, and things seemed pretty normal, except we didn’t shake hands.

And then I found out that the guest sitting next to me was from Italy, and had just flown in via New York.

That’s how if often goes in life: small surprises with big consequences, and why my grandmother often told me “better safe than sorry.” I rushed home, informally quarantined, counting off the days with worry, not telling anyone, assuming it was a long shot. But sure enough, 10 days later — five days after the WHO designated the situation as a “pandemic,” I experienced the first symptoms in what would later be diagnosed as Covid-19.

From exposing myself that one time — indoors with no masks, and no social distancing — I suffered a difficult case, with lingering breathing problems, and then six months of debilitating long Covid. I have gone into details previously, but let’s just say I am still not 100 percent myself.

The lunch a year ago was most definitely not worth it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated strongly that people “should wear masks until we actually prove that vaccines prevent transmission …. By the time we get to fall we’ll find some normality. Six to nine more months. But not yet.”

Variants are now a real risk, and there has been explosive spread in Brazil, The United Kingdom and many parts of the world: it’s now estimated that a quarter of the new cases in Florida are coming from the U.K. variant.

“We have to try to avoid a fourth wave,” says Dr. Tom Friedan, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, in a television interview. “Hang in there …. vaccines are working. We will get to a new normal.”

But we’re not there yet.

The CDC will soon be issuing new guidelines about small gatherings of vaccinated Americans. Right now this group, including me, can socialize pretty safely among ourselves, especially outside. And when most people are innoculated, and cases, hospitalizations and deaths fall further, we may feel ready to go mask-less.

But here are five reasons it’s not yet time to let down our guard in public spaces, and why we should mask up, despite what some politicians say — and even double- mask, especially indoors.

1- We still don’t know when we enter a room what percentage of people are not vaccinated.

2- Scientists are not completely sure whether vaccinated people spread the virus to those who are not vaccinated. While all Covid-19 vaccines shield people from severe illness and death, it’s not clear how well they stop the virus from spreading to others.

3- The Covid vaccine heads off severe disease but not infection, similar to inoculations against the flu.

4- Some vaccines are less effective at preventing infections with certain variants, and might allow more virus to spread. And the variants are growing rapidly throughout much of the world.

5- The possibility of Long Covid, even if you get a mild case of Covid-19, and are protected by vaccine, is reason enough to be careful.

Don’t take chances, especially now, when we are perhaps within months of overtaking this virus. Follow CDC guidelines. (We do know that being careful in the past year, especially wearing masks, has precipitously dropped the rate of flus and colds.)

I just went out to a restaurant last week for the first time since that luncheon exactly a year ago. And I wore a mask when I wasn’t eating, even though I sat outside and I am now fully vaccinated.

No matter what politicians allow for whatever reasons, please keep in mind that even one mistake, one slip up, one lunch indoors without precautions, may affect the rest of your life.

Author of the award-winning travel memoir, Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. Podcast Host, Places I Remember with Lea Lane, wherever you