You don’t have to go very far to see how the political divide is playing out in the way we respond to COVID-19. I just went out for lunch.

I left my bubble recently when I got to spend a few days in the country with my wife and daughter.

We didn’t go very far from liberal Portland, but it was far enough that the Trump signs outnumbered the Biden signs by at least 10 to one. It was also far enough away to see how turning everything into a political issue is tearing us apart. 

We were hungry and headed for a fish market/lunch counter to get some lobster rolls. We masked up and got on line, 6 feet behind other customers, who were also wearing masks.

When we got closer to the counter, I started to see that I was not in Portland any more.

A sign informed me that I was entering the place at my own risk. It went on to say:

“Gov. Janet Mills has ordered that all customers must wear a mask when entering this store. If you have a medical condition that prevents you from wearing a mask, you do not need to wear one. If you are not wearing one, we will assume this is the case. Due to HIPAA and the Fourth Amendment, we will not ask you about your condition.”

I’m not a lawyer, but I know that  HIPAA is a federal law regulating health care providers, not sandwich providers. And the Fourth Amendment prevents the government from searching your home without a warrant. It doesn’t say it’s OK to expel virus droplets on my lobster roll.

But all the customers I could see were wearing masks anyway, so I stayed in line until I got closer to the counter. There I could see that no one handling the food was masked, not even the guy who takes the money and brings out the orders when they are ready.

It’s not that they didn’t have masks, they did – neck gaiters – but without exception they were around their necks, not their mouths and noses. 

As with the sign, I could see that their idea of complying with the law was to make a point of flouting it. I had to wonder what other health protocols these people considered mockable. Is there something in the Bill of Rights that says you don’t have to wash your hands if you don’t want to?

 I told the kid at the counter we were leaving because no one was wearing a mask, and he took it in stride. “OK,” he said. The place was full and he had plenty to do.

I was hungry and disappointed, but, since this is America, we had options. Across the street there was one of those gourmet markets with imported olive oil and a big wine selection. They also made sandwiches, so we headed over there.

This place had signs too, but nothing like their neighbor’s.

There were signs reminding us to wear masks and socially distance ourselves and a sign that told us that the store limited the number of people inside. A masked employee outside told you when you could enter.

There were ropes and signs creating two lines, one for takeout orders and one for shoppers. Neither turned out to be operative, and we were told that we could go in as soon as someone left.

Inside, a cozy space had been redesigned to accommodate one-way traffic. Sandwiches were ready-made instead of made-to-order, and placed in a case with labels that were confusing, at least to me (I got the wrong one.)

I had to break the rules a couple of times, once to get a bag of chips and then to get a drink from a cooler I had missed when I entered. We were routed through the store to the cash register, where a cheerful masked employee took our money. 

And there, in one meal, was our national dilemma. 

The people in the fancy market had good intentions, but like a lot of liberal institutions, they were burdened by confusing rules and inefficiency. I was only trying to buy a sandwich, but I could imagine how it must feel to apply for unemployment or Medicaid.

Meanwhile, across the street, they don’t care if I die.

We’re two months away from what everyone says is the most consequential election since 1860. 

If only the problems we are facing after it’s decided were as simple as where to have lunch.

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