Tales from the pandumbic – part 9

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Don’t stand so close to me

It’s already mandatory to wear masks or face coverings on public transport here in the UK, and from 24th July it will also be mandatory to wear them in shops – and after a trip to the shop a few days ago, that date can’t come around soon enough for me.

Before I explain the reason, I should point out that until this point I haven’t been wearing any face covering myself when I go to the shops – but even before the announcement was made, I’ve decided that I would start doing so from my next visit to a shop because of the last one. (In fact I bought a box of masks some time back expecting them to become necessary – they’ve been sitting in a cupboard ever since.)

In a previous instalment in this series of posts – Fools and their social distance are soon parted – I talked about an incident I witnessed whereby a shopper who was perfectly well aware of the need for maintaining a suitable distance from other people encountered another shopper, who simply ignored any concept of social distancing. When I popped to the shop myself more recently, a similar thing happened again – but with a difference.

I normally do my shopping late in the evening – usually after nine; the shop I use most doesn’t close until ten. This sort of time suits me because the shop tends to have very few customers wandering the aisles; perfect now, for obvious reasons, but it was also my preference long before CoViD-19 was ever known about. However, that doesn’t always work out, and sometimes I have to visit a shop earlier in the day – as on this occasion.

After heading around the store to grab the things I needed, I headed for the checkout. There was someone at the till, so I waited a suitable distance back – behind the appropriate line, based on where he was standing. Once he’d finished putting his shopping on the belt, he moved forward to load the stuff into his bag, and pay. At that point, I was able to safely move to the line at this end of the belt, unload my shopping onto it, and put my own basket on the stack.

That customer continued chatting to the person on the checkout for a minute or two after he’d paid and put his shopping into bags, so I remained where I was – behind the line at my end of the belt, a couple of metres back, until the conversation ended and he headed for the door. I then moved forward.

As I started to move, I glanced around.

The next customer was waiting right behind me. Not behind the next line (at the end of the aisles), not two metres away, not one metre away, not even a couple of feet away; as close as you might have expected in a busy shop in normal times. The gap between us was just over the size of the basket her own shopping was in. Similar to the second chap in the argument in ‘Fools and their social distance are soon parted’ – but without even the excuse of being ‘behind the line’.

And as you might have guessed, she wasn’t wearing a mask. I can’t be critical of that because, as I said, I wasn’t wearing one; not being mandatory until July 24th, neither of us was under any obligation to do so – but it’s worth pointing out given her ignorance of the need to maintain a safe distance; something I was trying to do.

This tale differs from the aforementioned one, though, in an important way. Being in the position of the customer who’s social distance was infringed upon by someone else, I chose not to start an argument with someone who was clearly being bloody stupid – I chose not to do anything that might lead to raised voices, and higher momentum of exhaled breath and the potential to spread a virus, which either of us could have had.

When I reached the other end of the belt to bag up my shopping and pay, I was facing back in towards the store, and therefore her. She had only moved forward from where I first spotted her enough necessary to pop her own shopping on the belt, then waited where she was; behind the line at that end, just as I had done – so she hadn’t stood right behind me out of ignorance of the need to maintain a safe distance.

If I was to guess I’d say that she might have become impatient because the customer before me was chatting with the checkout operator, and because I therefore hadn’t moved forward from where I was. In other words, I suspect that she may have moved forward to stand behind me as a passive aggressive hint for me to move forward, but I didn’t notice until I happened to move forward anyway – which was when it was safe to do so.

It’s worth stressing that a mask helps protect other people from the wearer if they happen to be infected, offering much less protection for the person wearing it. Had I been wearing one when I encountered this impatient shopper, it probably wouldn’t have helped me if she was infected (and this time wouldn’t have helped her if I had the virus – because I wasn’t facing in her direction at all except when I was at the other end of the checkout).

But it’s people like this (and both of the customers in the earlier tale) that justify masks being mandatory for visiting the shops and similar. This should have come much earlier – and I won’t be waiting until 24th July before I start.