By Elizabeth Rosenthal
As stores, restaurants, airlines and offices try to lure clients back, this is what they need to do to earn my business: Make me feel safe — no, make me be as safe as possible. As I’ve begun to explore old haunts, some are doing a fabulous job. Others are not.
So my dollars will flow to the former, and I’ll effectively boycott the latter. Think of it as ethical shopping, with a safety twist: I’ll reward businesses that are seriously implementing recommended Covid-19 precautionary guidelines. And I’ll punish, in my own tiny way, those who don’t take them to heart.
Yes, I know businesses across the country have lost huge amounts of money because of the pandemic. But many did get billions of dollars of federal aid to sustain them.
All many of us got was a $1,200 check. Some who would not normally be eligible for unemployment benefits will be able to get them, and some beneficiaries got extended benefits. Some of those have since run out.
It is not that hard to make many businesses relatively Covid-friendly and safe, though it requires making that a priority, investing a bit and thinking out of the box.
My local Trader Joe’s in Washington, D.C., did a stellar job. While I initially limited my shopping to once a week at the crack of dawn, I quickly came to view the store as a safe zone: Shoppers received a squirt of hand sanitizer at the door and were directed to a row of sanitized carts.
Mandatory masking was (politely) enforced, the number of customers in the store was limited, and customers waiting outside were carefully spaced in line at 6-foot intervals. Checkout clerks scanned your items from behind a plexiglass partition and placed them back in your cart.
Customers could put their groceries in their carrier bags on a frequently sanitized table outside. If you lived close by, you could simply use the cart to walk the groceries home. Used carts were gathered in an area for re-sanitizing.
Contrast that with a local CVS Pharmacy. Yes, there was a sign on the door indicating masking was required, and plexiglass partitions had been placed at checkout counters. But there was no active enforcement once inside, and it was sometimes crowded. The pile of baskets was, as always, inside the front door, and used ones were placed on top by shoppers as they left.
Some customers picking up medicines had masks around their necks, and even some of the employees — including sometimes the pharmacist — had pulled down their masks so both nose and mouth were exposed. I know wearing a mask for hours can feel stifling, but if surgeons can do it in the operating room, so can we. And if the coronavirus lingers in the air in enclosed spaces, as we now know it does, not masking could be a problem.
Last week, when I went to pick up a prescription that was not quite ready, I said I wouldn’t wait in a place where so many people were not following our local masking mandate. I left.
On a recent trip to my hometown, New York City, many restaurants in my neighborhood had erected outdoor seating areas on sidewalks and into the street. (Indoor dining was still prohibited at that time.)
But my (formerly) favorite eatery had merely put out a few tables on the sidewalk, which employees wiped down with the same damp cloth. Yes, the tables were (maybe) 6 feet apart. But tables don’t get infectious diseases, people do. The chairs, where potential COVID carriers would sit (without masks when they eat), were far closer together.
In contrast, the restaurant next door, whose food I normally consider mediocre, had sanitizer at check-in and had set up a tent hung with flowers in what was formerly a parking lane, under which tables were widely spaced with plexiglass partitions separating them.
The wait staff was scrupulous about social distancing. It limited dining to 90 minutes. The food tasted great. Did the restaurant have a new chef, or was it its lovely setup — which really allowed us to relax and not consider a world gone Covid-mad as we ate — that made us enjoy its food more than we ever had?
A high-end Mexican restaurant we visited in Brooklyn went one step further: Each diner had to give a cellphone number at the door in case contact tracing was required. It had created an online menu, so diners made their selections from their phones.
And don’t get me started on airlines, and their varying policies. The risk of in-flight transmission appears to be low if everyone is masked and doesn’t knowingly fly ill. But that’s a big if. Remember, the novel coronavirus’s cousin, Sars-CoV, a far more dangerous but less contagious virus, created an infamous outbreak on a two-hour flight from Hong Kong to Beijing in 2003.
There have been cases related to in-flight exposures in Europe and Asia. Yet Airlines for America, an industry group, said this month that there have been “no confirmed cases of COVID-19 transmission on U.S. flights [italics mine].” Are the Boeings and Airbuses somehow different in Europe than in the U.S.?
And let’s remember epidemiology: There may be demonstrated cases of in-flight transmission elsewhere only because people abroad have resumed a more normal life than America has. Very few people in the U.S. are flying these days because America still has tens of thousands of new cases a day and leads the world in deaths.
Some airlines, like Delta and Southwest, are not selling middle seats or are selling only about half their seats. United and American have been flying full whenever they can. On June 30, United’s chief communications officer Josh Earnest (yes, the former Obama White House spokesperson), dismissed the blocking of middle seats as “PR.”
“When you’re on board the aircraft, if you’re sitting in the aisle, and the middle seat is empty, the person across the aisle from you is within 6 feet of you,” he said. “The person at the window is within 6 feet of you. The people in the row in front of you are within 6 feet of you. The people in the row behind you are within 6 feet of you.”
But 3 feet is better than cheek-by-jowl. In fact, the World Health Organization says that 3 feet is acceptable for social distancing.
Yet that’s not so good if you take off your mask. So why do airlines distribute those little bags of pretzels and nuts, anyway? When my daughter flew to grad school in California, I insisted she fly Delta, though other carriers fly the same route.
Instead of trying to create a bit of social distancing, some airlines offer a few concessions. Says American: “Customers on all flights receive sanitizing wipes or gel.” United offers to rebook your flight without a change fee if it’s too full for your comfort the night before. It will notify “customers when we can if their flight is fairly full and give them the option to change it” — though you pay the price difference for a new ticket.
A friend of mine flying London to New York checked a United flight seating chart beforehand and — seeing the middle seat was free — prepared for a long, but relatively safe, flight. Shortly after they took their seat, another passenger sat in the middle seat next to them. If you’re going to start college or visit a sick relative, delaying (and paying a higher price) isn’t really a viable option.
Remember, airlines received tens of billions in taxpayer-funded loans to help them survive the pandemic. And — with their crowded, uncomfortable seats and an explosion of new fees — they do not have a good record in recent years of catering to customers’ needs.
So if the government won’t act to enforce some kind of Covid-era standards for customer satisfaction, we all can use our hard-earned dollars to do so.
Yes, COVID precautions often feel like overkill. There is little chance that I will get Covid-19 from one meal, one flight or one trip to the pharmacy. But multiply those odds by over 300 million Americans visiting millions of places. Many people — maybe someone you love — will.
Elisabeth Rosenthal, editor in chief of Kaiser Health News, was an emergency room physician before becoming a journalist. She reported for The New York Times for 22 years and is the author of “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back.” @RosenthalHealth
R. S. says
Sometimes I wonder whether Trump really wasn’t sick and the entire thing is a publicity stunt. But, no, too many people would have had to keep mum for him to have succeeded, huh? ;-)
Well written true to life easy peasy. Just follow some basic procedures things will fall into place so long as near everyone participates. I dont understand what the big deal is about taking precations for the better of all and a goal of stamping this C19 out. It wont happen following the Unleader
Thank you for this article! I too have been boycotting places who do not take this seriously. I am the consumer and should not be at risk because someone wants to make a buck. I will post the positive and negatives I see regarding businesses taking caring of their customers or not giving a flip. I won’t make anyone go broke, but I do have a voice. I understand we have to get back to some kind of normalcy and since our current administration doesn’t care, we have to! JMHO
Exactly my sentiments. I will turn around and walk out of any business not enforcing the common sense guidelines.
Do you only drive your car on roads were everyone is driving the speed limit? Do you drive your car only on roads with people who are not impaired or on their phone? Do you walk across only street only at locations that have lights for crossing or do you get real risky sometimes and use cross walks where traffic is only controlled by a stop sign. Or maybe sometimes you let your hair down and God forbid jaywalk? You go ahead and live in fear. Live in your basement. You go ahead and play the political game. All life is a risk. Stop with the fear mongering and hysteria. Get a life.
Stop at stoplights says
Do you not care if I do not wear a mask and give you and your family COVID? Your argument has nothing to do with trying to stop the spread of a very contagious virus that has put ppl out of commission and killed over 200,000.
Do you have the connections to get experimental drugs and treatments nearly immediately upon diagnosis? Do you have other people paying all your medical bills for primo medical care? No, they’re going to send you home to isolate there without ten docs surrounding you. You won’t get the experimental drug at all. The other meds not until you’re so sick you can barely breathe.
Take your illogical and ridiculous arguments back to the bar and fb where you can be validated by other nonsensical people. You’re so silly.
Political game. Comparing C19 to driving in a car crossing the street. Etc.. The only thing I fear is that there are people in Society your Town with your mentality. Ignorance is bliss Here have some koolaid lol SMH
An excellent article. . . and my thoughts exactly. Trader Joe’s is doing an excellent job.
We recently did a very, very careful road trip to New Mexico. I would give Hampton Inns a “B”. . . at least they post signs saying a mask is required in the lobby and breakfast areas, and their rooms appear to have extra cleaning. The trouble is, they do nothing to enforce their mask requirement. Of course, in places like Mississippi, there were customers who did NOT mask up. Best Western did none of this at all. . . even their staff did not wear masks.
While in New Mexico, we felt much, much safer than here. 100% of the locals in Santa Fe wore masks, even walking down the street. The line outside at Trader Joe’s was well socially distanced by marked spaces on the sidewalk. Everyone was patient and civilized and cooperative. The carts were well cleaned by staff after each and every use, and they only allowed 50% of normal occupancy by allowing 1 person inside each time a shopper left. All staff wore mask correctly and the cashiers were behind Plexiglas panels. The people in Santa Fe consider wearing a mask an act of love. . . what a concept!
I’m embarrassed for my home state when I here people call us “Floridiots”. . . I get defensive. . . . but, I can’t really disagree in what is turning out to be too many cases.
People need to keep in mind that they’re not going to get treated in the same manner as trump, if they get sick. He was life flighted to WalterReed, cared go by no less than seven Physicians. Stayed in a mini White House, received experimental drug not available to you. He was given Dexamethasone which you would not receive unless you were headed for a ventilator or already on one. This is due to the potential harm the drug could do and the necessity to use it only when deemed necessary.
If trump and his admin had worn masks regularly, they wouldn’t all be sick now.
The fact is that COVID has killed over 200,000 people and sickened millions who are experiencing lung and organ damage after they no longer have COVID. These were often younger, otherwise healthy individuals.
I can’t imagine what type of person it is that does not care about their fellow humans and is buying into the false information from the mess that is trump. What a shit show he put on. Just like Kim Jong-un.
BTW, you don’t have to have a trump sticker on your vehicle when you get
out and enter someone’s business without a mask on. Trust me, we know. It’s as though it’s made it easy to spot all the narcissists, lol.
Scooty rocks says
Your super smart. I hope I can be smart like you you oneday. My mom and mom would be so proud.
Sally Sue says
Great article. Just riveting. Can’t wait for the next one.