Two quick thoughts on the push to reopen stores and beaches and things while states are still seeing an increase in covid-19 cases. The obvious thought is that undereducated people are being convinced that fighting The Rich Man’s War to Resume Making Money is a virtue, a form of patriotism, in much the same way the U.S. military works to convince young people of limited means that dying for oil barons in endless wars might make them a hero.

The less obvious thought is that undereducated people are being convinced that Deciding For Yourself When To Get A Haircut is a form of civil disobedience, which has a grand history in the U.S., and which feels very good to take part in, with the long-term added benefit for our current administration of becoming the obvious scapegoat if a second-wave of virus deaths happens this summer.

In other words: it won’t be Trump’s fault that so many Americans have died. It’ll be all these disobedient people, who in turn will be happy to take the blame away from their deadbeat dad.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. In California, there’s a (semi-) detailed plan for reopening what’s been closed since March. Right now, retail stores have reopened with curbside pickup only. The next phase is to open “personal care” businesses like salons and gyms. The final phase is to reopen concert and sports venues.

It’s odd that California’s plan doesn’t mention bars and restaurants (my guess is they’re somewhere in the late-2 / early-3 stage, at least smaller-capacity ones). But it’s all I and my friends here talk about. Nobody’s yearning to drive to a curb to pick up a pair of shoes they bought online. Everybody wants to be able to hang out together.

That reopening shops and businesses is our focus has something to do with public health but a lot to do with money-making always taking a priority over people’s well-being.

I love bars and restaurants. I feel very happy and content inside them. But I’ve realized that as much as I want to go drink with friends again, re-opening bars is a lower priority for me than reopening two kinds of places I don’t hear much talk about: libraries and churches.

California’s plan does mention in-person church services happening by the end of Phase 3, but I’m not talking about services exactly. I’m talking about church spaces. Many churches (in San Francisco at least) are small, no larger than the retail shops who get to re-open this week, so there could be distancing problems with reopening them. But many churches are large and airy—if not larger than grocery stores then at least far less crowded.

The church I usually go to most mornings is one of the biggest in town. There’s never more than four or five people there in the morning, none of them closer than 20 feet away from me. Also: nobody works at the church, or at least nobody is visibly working. The church is open for people to come and sit—maybe they pray (which is what I do) or maybe they just sit.

I really need to be able to go sit in church and pray again. And I’d totally do it in a mask and gloves if California would let me.

Likewise, I really need the services of my campus and local libraries. I don’t need to go in there and sit and read. (I read at home; why I don’t pray at home I should get into more in a bit here.) But I want access to books, and while I personally can afford to buy any book I might want to read, it might be good to start thinking about giving people in a pandemic access to free books ASAP.

I understand that libraries circulate shared materials, and sharing anything in a pandemic makes everyone very nervous—for good reason. But I can imagine a curbside pickup system that could limit damages the way restaurants and stores currently do.

But I’m not looking in this post to talk about how this could happen, I want to focus more on why it should. Or at least, why I need it. I thought what I needed was bars so that I could be social again and feel like a person out in the world, but I’ve realized that bars are useful in this regard as a distraction from one’s day-to-day.

Libraries and church—okay so for whatever reason I’ve made a habit in my spiritual life of being in church to pray, so that while I can pray at home it feels like I’m not fully committing to God whenever I do, which is silly, and something I can get over in time, and so in the end, sure, I admit that I don’t need churches to reopen but I’d really like to be inside mine again—instead help me focus on my life. They’re absorptive in the way bars are distracting.

In short, they help me think and feel. And it would be great to live in a state that saw its citizens’ thinking and feeling as an essential resource and would work hard to quickly restore access to the venues in which we best perform this resource.[*] Putting what’s happening in those terms, it sounds like we need to reopen businesses ASAP.

But we don’t. This pandemic has taught us to rethink what we’ve thought was essential.

Here’s a claim for libraries and churches (or call them meditation centers if it helps). Let us think and feel before you put us back to the task of money-making and -spending, and maybe the future we need can come more quickly.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Funny that I don’t consider universities to be part of the venues where people do good work thinking and feeling, but (a) universities require groups/crowds, and (b) I’m still on sabbatical and I’m not about to waste it.