By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
I was supposed to get married on October 10, 2020. We had our venue and caterer all set, and I was prepared with the most Jessica-ish bridal look y’all have ever seen. But Mike and I postponed our wedding indefinitely because of the pandemic. The last thing I want is to celebrate my undying love for my partner by shouldering the risk of our loved ones, you know, dying. Was that likely to happen? No. But as my wise friend Grace explained, large events right now seem about as safe as drunk driving. Is it likely your event will be a superspreader? No, but the chance is there, infinitely more so than during non-pandemic times. Is it likely if someone drives drunk that they’ll hit another car, injuring themselves and killing other folks on the road? No, but the chance is obviously infinitely greater than driving sober. In both of these cases, the results of taking these risks can be disastrous. Not just for folks who consented to be at risk, but for other folks who are just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
For example, a couple had a 65-person wedding in rural Maine in August. Other folks not affiliated made the number of attendees over 100. Since then, 170 cases of coronavirus have been linked back to the wedding. Eight folks died. The kicker about the eight folks who died from this superspreader event: none of them attended the wedding! They just contracted the virus from someone who did! Much like when someone makes the individual decision to get behind the wheel drunk, attending a large event because you feel comfortable is not a decision that lives in a vacuum. Whatever we tell ourselves to relinquish accountability, our individual choices are not just about us. Our choices impact whoever’s paths we cross.
My dad’s 80th birthday would have been September 10. It’s been over six months since he passed, and I’m still deeply rolling in grief. As I wrote in an earlier piece, “Of Love, Loss, and Pandemics,” my dad died early on the morning of March 14. I’d spent hours with him the night before and was able to say goodbye. He died next to my mom early the next morning.
That Monday, the state went into lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19. I’m devastated to have lost my dad, and the pain is ever-present and still hurts like a bruise that won’t go away. One morning in August, I saw an article about my dad’s nursing home. There was a Covid-19 outbreak. Over 70 people had contracted the virus. I felt sick to my stomach and filled with guilt because I was so grateful my dad was already gone.
I can’t imagine not having been able to see him in those final moments. I’ve caught myself multiple times losing my breath as I ponder just how damned good at timing my dad was. If he had lived any longer, we would have missed our beautiful goodbye.
So, over six months later, here we are still in a full-blown pandemic that has taken 223,000 lives in the United States. My mom and I haven’t had a funeral for my dad yet, unless you count us getting breakfast the morning that he died, holding hands, crying into our omelets, and retelling our favorite memories.
Come to think of it, that was a pretty nice little ceremony.
We haven’t had a “real” funeral because most of the attendees would be elderly, and therefore especially susceptible to COVID.
All of this is to say that I have had some HEAVY personal shit happen in 2020, and I’m making very intentional decisions to hold off on milestones because it seems like a lot of folks have forgotten WE’RE STILL IN A DAMN PANDEMIC.
My long stiletto manicured nails? Gone
My hair? Cut by my partner (it looks GREAT).
Was letting my partner, whose only knowledge of hair trimming was from watching a five minute YouTube video, trim my immaculate navy tresses a risk? Oh yes, but not one that could result in me getting a communicable disease, possibly having irreparable lung damage, or you know, giving COVID to my mom and killing her.
When I see folks I care about still going out to parties, mingling with many different people, posting pictures of get-togethers with no distancing, it feels like I’m living in a parallel universe. We have access to the same news. What is this disconnect? I talk to folks who say they’re “safe,” but their actions aren’t congruent with recommended precautions. In my heart of hearts, I believe most folks will protect their fellow humans as much as they’re willing to protect themselves, but unfortunately, for many people, that means not very much.
This past week, both PA and the US had the highest numbers of new cases since the pandemic began. Folks are tired of the virus, but it is not tired of us.
When people downplay COVID by bringing up comorbidities or talk about herd immunity, I am angered and hurt. Folks are parroting misused medical statistics like “the survival rate is 95%.” So older folks, disabled folks, those immunocompromised or with preexisting conditions, their lives are worth going to happy hour? Tell that to my friend who lost both of their grandparents to COVID within a month. Is feigning normalcy worth losing 223,000 folks and counting? Will it only matter when this hits you directly? The Trump administration has utterly failed us in addressing the coronavirus as both a public health and economic crisis. If you’re not a billionaire, they do not give a damn. Since our government is doing nothing to protect us from this pandemic, it is on us to protect each other. Pittsburgh activist Maria Montano recently summed it up when she said, “Honestly, I just don’t get it. We are just so unwilling to make small sacrifices now to care for each other in the face of a government that is unwilling to do what it takes to keep us safe.” We have an empathy deficit in this country when issues only become pressing when they affect us directly.
On July 14, 2020, at twenty-eight years old, my friend Tori was diagnosed with Stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer. Chemotherapy means few white blood cells to fight infections, so they currently have no immune system. Getting COVID would be life-threatening. They recently posted, “If you’ve ever wondered how I feel when I see people talking about going out to eat indoors or to party or not wearing masks, it’s like this. People talking about how their right to go out to eat is more important than my life.” Responses included, “Sorry you have cancer, but we can’t survive on closing America.” Ironically, the woman who said that had a breast cancer awareness logo as her profile picture. I want to strangle this broad with a pink ribbon myself.
To folks continuing to have parties, weddings, etc. as if none of this is happening: you are not making a choice just for yourself. For better or worse, we are all interconnected. The simplicity of framing whether to go out to eat, go to parties, etc. as a personal choice is a lie. I spoke with a friend about this a couple of months ago, and he said that I shouldn’t judge him for still going out and doing things because he didn’t judge me for quarantining. But that falsely frames these choices as having equal value. One puts more people at risk, and one does not.
When I chatted with Tori about their experience fighting cancer during a pandemic, they noted, “It is so telling that I went to Black Lives Matter protests pre-cancer diagnosis, and didn’t get sick.” While many people attended, folks were outside, socially distant, and wearing masks. The connective tissue here is understanding basic empathy.
To my fellow humans who have been quarantined, only going out for essentials, and limited social interactions to those outside: the hard choices we’ve made were not in vain. They were not a waste. You have saved lives, maybe your own, but probably someone you don’t know. That should be enough.