This January, I had to ask a patron to put on a mask in the Atlanta restaurant where I was working. It took everything I had to be polite. Last summer, I worked in a California grocery store where if someone came in uncovered, customers and workers alike would yell until they covered up or left the premises. The culture is different in Georgia, where “anti-maskers” are an undeniable presence in the population. If I were to yell at a customer in Atlanta for going mask-less, I’d be the one to face repercussions. So when they come into the restaurant, I ask them to take one of our complimentary surgical masks with a smile, knowing that should they ignore me, I can do almost nothing. Still, I make a mental note about who that person is and how they differ from me.
In a state as politically and socially divided as Georgia, it’s no surprise that our population is totally divided on its response to COVID-19. Our governor made national news over the summer when he sued Atlanta’s mayor for enforcing a city-wide mask ordinance. While Governor Kemp has since dropped the lawsuit and created state-wide COVID restrictions of his own, it’s easy to feel the skepticism that Kemp both raised and capitalized on earlier in the pandemic. Many Georgians genuinely don’t believe in the awful health consequences of COVID-19, or simply don’t see them as significant enough to alter their behavior, whether that be through wearing a mask or curbing their attendance at super-spreader events (bars and clubs have been open for many months now). On the flip side, Atlanta is home to the CDC. At the center of America’s public health research and response, many of us are personally and publicly concerned with the minimization and eradication of COVID-19.
It is thus in 2021 Atlanta that I have seen first-hand the politics of personal choice in action like never before. For many people, particularly those of marginalized identities, politics has never been separate from their bodies. Black Americans are unable to go through the world without first being seen as Black people; the same is true of visibly queer people. As a woman, I have encountered this when I’ve been catcalled. The politics of our bodies is often inescapable, but COVID complicates this: now, no one is free of having their existence politicized. And perhaps more significantly, this politicization, though unavoidable, is always shaped by a choice made by the individual (even when influenced by law), and isn’t an intrinsic part of who they were born to be.
If someone chooses to go in public without a mask, they are telling those around them about their political beliefs. They are saying that they are either apathetic to the suffering of those made sick by COVID-19, or that they are in denial. On the other hand, while wearing a mask feels less like a political choice and more like following the status quo, doing so is a small affirmation of science, a small choice to support the health experts trying to help us regain normalcy, and most importantly, a sign of respect for one’s community.
When people come into the restaurant I work at without a mask, I judge them. Sometimes, it makes me sad when I think of all the people with whom I’ve had a problem with before even talking to them. Before COVID-19 (or hopefully after), I would never know of these people’s beliefs about public health and their duties (or lack thereof) to society. But mostly, I feel justified in my judgment, because I also feel disrespected. Going maskless to a place where you’re surrounded by other people—many of whom are there because they have to be, financially—and putting their health at risk because you don’t like the feel of a mask isn’t just stupid; it’s selfish. And as the person who has to politely tell these individuals that we would “really appreciate it if you would take a mask,” I feel like my health is being ignored.
The judgment goes both ways, however. This summer, as I was driving from California to Atlanta with my roommate, we stopped in many small towns where we were the only people wearing masks, and could feel ourselves sticking out. While no one ever gave us a hard time about this, we feared that they might. Our choice to wear masks, in places where that wasn’t the norm, told the people we encountered information about us. It told them about our liberalism, our outsider status, even our education—which as a young woman in an unfamiliar place, I’d feel more comfortable keeping closer to my belt. For people with more visible forms of oppression working against them, this additional politicization can add another level of danger and vulnerability, which I look forward to doing away with (when it’s safe to do so).
I do not enjoy the constant reminders of apathy I’ve seen in this pandemic. I look forward to the day when all this is a distant memory, when I can go to a concert feeling safe, or see a person’s smile, and take away nothing but joy. But I do appreciate that the pandemic has forced us to see how inextricable politics is from all of our lives, and how even being “apolitical” is a political position.
By Sheena Holt
Illustration by Gabriella Shery