I taught my son to drive during quarantine. We had nowhere to go, and all the time in the world to get there. Our excursions through the deserted city streets were a student driver’s paradise: no distracted pedestrians streaked across the road, no sinister car doors swung open from parking lanes, no cars bunched up on the beltline. While the quiet streets allowed me to ease my grip on the center console, the desolation was in no way comforting. It served as a grim reminder of the devastation of the pandemic.
But now, even while the virus hides in plain sight, the forsaken landscape of COVID-19 is receding in my rear-view mirror. Cars line up at stoplights and pedestrians pop up at every crosswalk. The vibrant scenery outside my car window mirrors the exuberance of the virus as it continues to spread, and contrasts with my internal world — still dulled and distorted by months of isolation.
I try to imagine the day when my son finally drives off without me. I won’t be there to remind him to turn on his blinker, to watch his speed, to keep an eye on a stale green. Without the constant narration from the passenger seat, will my son remember to be careful? And without the tell-tale signs of the pandemic right in front of our eyes — the shuttered shops, the empty streets, the schoolkids languishing at home — will we remember to do what is needed to stay safe?
As the country lurches forward, we are like student drivers without an instructor by our side, and with no traffic signals to guide us. We take calculated risks, weigh the pros and cons of exposure. We are expected to understand the dangers of this virus, but not be paralyzed by fear. We are asked to support local businesses, but to do it safely: to keep our distance, to wear a mask. But in many places these guidelines are a mere suggestion, a yield sign at best. Flimsy recommendations leave overwhelmed and undertrained employees to enforce company policies on their own, endangering themselves in the process. Parameters change so frequently and vary so wildly from one state to another, from one county to the next, that compliance appears to be optional.
We are a society that mandates warning labels on everything from hairdryers to plastic bins, and yet when it comes to this deadly virus, the warning comes too late, in the form of statistics in a headline, or not at all. Without clear policies from our leaders, each individual has the freedom to choose, but the burden of choice weighs heavily on us. Each day we must decide whether to keep working from home or to show our face at the office, whether to wear a mask outdoors or put our faith in sunlight and fresh air; whether to visit relatives or wait it out. Parents must balance their children’s emotional well-being with their physical safety, as they consider whether to let them see friends, play sports, go to camp, or hold a summer job. The constant analyzing wears us down.
We try to do the right thing, but the distinctions between right and wrong, safe and dangerous, are increasingly subtle and hard to make out. What was black-and-white in quarantine now appears in grayscale, a continuum of risk and reward that closely resembles a slippery slope. I’ve seen the downward slide in action — at the park, on social media, and in my own front yard, as “air” high-fives between my children and their friends turn into fist bumps and handshakes. I pop my head out the window as a warning, but I know I won’t always be there to remind them.
My kids aren’t the only ones who crave normalcy. As the weeks wear on, it gets harder and harder to keep from hugging my dearest friend. Will I really be able to refrain from embracing my parents when I finally have the chance to see them? And, I wonder, what’s the point of wearing a face covering at a restaurant if I have to remove my mask to eat?
Without the proverbial mother watching through the window to keep us honest, what will prevent us from sliding into complacency?
How do we stay within the lines that seem haphazardly drawn at times, especially when others are drifting? The answer I keep hearing is: “Do what feels right for you.” While this sentiment makes sense in light of the confusing and often contradictory recommendations from people in charge, it can also be dangerous. Because what feels “right” for me could turn out to be very wrong for the people I end up getting sick.
I examine this well-intentioned advice through the lens of my teenage son behind the wheel, fresh license in hand. Every reaction, every miscalculation, every mistake he makes behind those steel doors will affect his fellow travelers. Driving is not a "you do you" type of situation and, it would appear, neither is navigating a pandemic.
We’ve all seen the videos of raucous, bare-faced crowds at bars, heard the rants of mask shamers and read the tales of conspiracy theorists, behaving like drunk drivers as they swerve away from reason. It’s easy to point fingers at their recklessness. But what if the real danger on the road comes from the well-meaning, but exhausted drivers — those who have grown too weary to put their beliefs into practice? When the rubber hits the road, will we have the energy and resolve to do what we know is right?
As grueling as it was — economically and emotionally — quarantine was somehow simpler: there were no options and few decisions to make. Driving during quarantine was equally straightforward. But my son won’t get the “real world” experience he needs in those conditions. He needs to practice driving in traffic, switching lanes on a crowded highway, and dodging kids on bikes. He needs to anticipate all the nameless perils that await him and internalize good decision-making until it becomes instinct. We need to do the same.
We cannot go back into seclusion. Human connection is essential, especially in the midst of our present darkness, as we work together to heal the injury of racial injustice. We need each other. But we also need to keep paying attention. If we want to exit this continual roundabout that COVID-19 has funneled us into, we have to take it slow, yield to others, and learn how to drive between the lines of fear and denial. There may be no one around to enforce the rules, but our family, our friends, and our community will pay the price for our inattention if we drift. Even as we focus on the road ahead, let’s remember to check our rear-view mirrors from time to time — to see what is sidling up to us, preparing to settle into our blind spot.
Lisa Reisig Ferrazzano, Ph.D., is a linguist, writer and Italian instructor at UW Continuing Studies.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!