We have now reached, almost to the day, the point when the majority of US states, taking the lead from a national disaster declaration, began issuing safety precautions in an attempt to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), better known as COVID-19, the number attributing the year in which epidemiologists first identified this variant. This declaration ushered in a variety of safety precautions, originally intended to last fifteen days to stop the spread of this virulent illness. None of them has directly involved bananas that I’m aware of. But, like a clichéd prank of slipping on a peel of bananas, the precautions are largely underfoot. Though often worn and faded from both the elements and the treads of numerous shoes, the decals on the ground still largely survive as a testament both to the length of time these distancing measures lasted and to the resiliency of the adhesive on those floor-stickers. Maybe the decals were simply built to last. And maybe the parties responsible for implementing social distancing had to re-apply them on multiple occasions.
That doesn’t really matter so much. What matters is that we witnessed and experienced a pastiche of public health measures intended to stymie the transmission of the COVID-19 virus, with varying jurisdictional applicability, stringency in enforcement, and metrics for overall successful outcome. I covered numerous examples of this, particularly in the first year. Then I got tired of it. Besides, most localities lifted many of the standards. And, in the last month or so, as the Omicron variant has waned, even the states that have historically retained stringent COVID mitigation measures have relaxed their restrictions. There can be no doubt that the winter of 2021-22 was less restrictive than 2020-21: despite the prevalence of the highly transmissible (but less virulent) Omicron variant, very few restaurants this past winter applied distancing measures, only a handful of stores monitored the occupancy levels at the doorway, and considerably fewer indoor public events were canceled.
More time is necessary to appropriately judge which among the measures were effective. I think historic reflection will not look kindly at the most draconian efforts, particularly as they relate to the vaccines and people losing their employment. But I also think some of the humblest and most nondescript efforts reveal a solicitousness that may linger well after COVID-19 ceases to be a daily consideration: for example, I have always admired how some businesses have taken it upon themselves to devote the first hour of operation in the morning exclusively to seniors (Dollar General was among the first, I believe). This particularly susceptible age cohort can meet its basic shopping needs immediately after the store’s pre-opening cleaning and sanitation regimen. It’s a thoughtful gesture that businesses can implement with little to no impact on their bottom line. It might even be a win-win: they attract an underrepresented demographic during a typically slow time of day.
Other COVID initiatives and precautions just leave me scratching my head.
I’ll leave the gym anonymous (it’s a national chain) but I’ve covered health clubs in the past: I can understand the potential desire for social distancing in locker rooms. But in swimming pool lanes? With heavy chlorine? What do they expect from restricting these wide lanes to a maximum of two people? They’re not even consistent among different locations: the above photo comes from one branch in Indianapolis. And here’s a different part of town:
They’re extra cautious at this location; no sharing lanes whatsoever. Backstroke swimmers are the greatest threat, since they’re panting heavily while their mouths are exposed 100% of the time. Obviously.
In another part of the country, this same gym chain offered different advice.
I’m trying to imagine people voluntarily putting their hands to their mouths as many times as prescribed to meet these exact directions for mask-wearing. But this sign came from the winter of ’20-21, when fear and restrictions were at their all-time high. Yet as prescriptive and technical as this sign is, it still pales in comparison to one I recently encountered at a coffee house.
The admonition on this little card reflects a level of COVID panic I’ve never experienced firsthand but have certainly witnessed (most of us have). All the more surprising that this coffeehouse reminder dates from less than a month ago, a point in time when most of the country had already begun relaxing its mask-wearing. Clearly this particular place was still inordinately fearful.
The threats—and the mitigation of these threats—don’t always have to do with the immediacy of person-to-person contact. Hundreds of miles away, an anonymous church in Maryland has clearly found it necessary to use a counter-measure for all the germaphobes in its congregation.
I’d presume that some people are grossed out by having their hands touch the lever activating a public toilet in the best of times. But people are prone to using other body parts than their hands to touch public services, especially in an era of COVID. in this instance, however, I can only presume that people’s tendency to flush with their feet has resulted in some careless motions that caused those levers to break off. So the congregation at this church needs to find some other channel for its germaphobic contingent; the leadership isn’t going tolerate any more broken toilets. Conversely, this facility (another gym chain in Indianapolis) has found a smart solution for avoiding those dreaded handles.
The serrated metallic device at the foot of the door allows people to use the treads on their shoes to force it open. Smart move. Probably one that will last long after corona.
Meanwhile, a hotel in northern Virginia determined that remote controls, specifically, are a potential vector for disease.
Whether or not the hotel management expected me to remove the plastic wrap, it was clear that it wanted to convey that it was sanitized between each use. Maybe it was. Did it matter? I could easily use the remote without removing the plastic…and then the plastic itself would carried the risk of contamination through my cooties.
And all of these aggressive prophylactic measures—the restriction of crowds in restaurants (thereby lowering their capitalization rate), the annulment of certain super-spreader events, and, eventually, the mandating of vaccination among all employers in select industries or businesses over a minimum size—eventually prompted two other phenomena which I have not ever really captured throughout the numerous blog articles over the last two years: intermittent surges in panic buying (most notoriously of toilet paper) and bottlenecks in the supply chain. Both of these phenomena yielded in the image below, taken at the beginning of 2022 at a Wegman’s supermarket in northern Virginia:
It’s an image that, I believe, Americans on the West Coast find most painful and salient; after all, the shortage of logistics personnel (some through COVID-related sickness, others through refusing the vaccines) created pronounced bottlenecks at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, resulting in over one hundred barges idling, filled with cargo, but not enough dockworkers to unload them.
And yes! we have no bananas—today, or yesterday, or many other days—certainly in the dead of winter, and even thousands of miles away in Virginia, more or less the opposite side of the country from where most backlogs were occurring. The absence of bananas at this Fairfax County Wegman’s should be obvious in the background left. The winter predicament across much of the country endowed that 1920s bananas novelty song with a whole new relevance, incidentally just two years after the famous over-covered tune by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn entered the public domain. Even at a point of such logistical crises that the cheapest and most ubiquitous of fruits is approaching scarcity (at least until disease wipes out the ubiquitous Cavendish cultivar), some supermarkets have found clever ways to strategize their sales of bananas (or basically anything):
No it’s not a Wegman’s anymore. But it reflects a topic I’ve enjoyed covering multiple times in the past, where grocery stores strategically and prominently display items they wish to sell, often in tandem with a certain holiday or a hugely popular event where people commune while eating certain foods; essentially Super Bowl is a holiday itself. In this case, it isn’t a holiday so much as strategic deployment during a period of scarcity. It’s not every supermarket that we encounter produce like bananas in an aisle primarily reserved for dry goods. But this is the “breakfast aisle”: cereal, granola bars, pancake mix, syrup, coffee. If bananas are limited, why not position them with foods that they typically complement? Since bananas have long been extremely popular atop a bowl of a cereal, this location seems to trigger the impulse buyer, much like the grab-and-go snacks, candies, and magazines available as customers wait at the cashier’s line.
Now that it’s March, the Mid-Atlantic shows only fleeting glimpses of the supply chain crisis. COVID has begun to recede in the public consciousness, at the same time of course as a new multinational sociopolitical challenge (“conflict” would be a more apt weasel word). How much the situation in Ukraine leaves its thumbprint on the built environment remains to be seen, but I can guarantee I’ve seen enough evidence of its impact to justify at least an article or two in the months ahead. The decals on the ground—“Travel this direction”, “Keep 6 Feet Distance”—will continue to fade, either blanched by sun exposure or worn away from foot traffic. Banners or flags of yellow and blue have begun to supplant the imagery of masks and vaccines and stick figures with outstretched arms, at least in the public consciousness. But in an era where people fixate on the ability to convey their every passing thought at any opportunity, we should never forget that the optimal low-tech soapbox for impromptu self-expression remains among the most visible and mobile: a car’s rear bumper.
It’s a stressful time to live, and frivolous messages remain the best anodyne. In the rare instance that a cat video isn’t immediately available, at least there’s a chance to remind us that there always close at hand. When the bananas are all gone, may the best meme win.