Summer of Nothing

The billboard from Steven Spielberg's Jaws

Summer of Nothing

Certain cultural venues are starting to reopen, and I truly wish I could be excited to tell you that things are actually happening out in the real world. But I’m not. I’m not going, and I can’t ethically tell you to go, either.
 
It’s too soon.
 
Inspired by most of the country’s restaurant critics, I’m going to wait. Go out if you must, but I’m not going to encourage it. There is plenty to do from home. This situation might not be ideal, particularly for people with hot apartments, crappy roommates, or restless children. But we are living through a historic pandemic and nothing is ideal! The solution is not to pretend that the pandemic isn’t happening.

(Here are 8 things you can do instead this week.)
 
We’re lucky enough to live in a state where COVID-19 numbers aren’t ballooning the way they are in other parts of the country, but will that last through summer tourist season? Every day we inch closer to 1000 local deaths. (The count was 960 going into the holiday weekend.) Providence alone has had 5,840 positive cases, which is over three percent of the city’s population. Not everyone dies, of course, but death is a really dumb baseline, particularly when survivors will be saddled with hideous piles of medical bills and a chance that their breathing may never fully recover, among lord even knows what other after affects.
 
But back to the restaurant critics. Soleil Ho at the San Francisco Chronicle recently had a succinct explanation for why she’s staying home, or at the very least sticking to takeout: “I want to continue to emphasize that everyone deserves to ride out this pandemic safely, and that means not hyping up loosening social distancing rules while COVID-19 cases are growing.”
 
Individuals should not feel it is their civic duty to singlehandedly support the restaurant industry, Ho maintains, especially when going out may lead to sickness, financial ruin, or death for workers. Tejal Rao at the New York Times adds that “restaurateurs, despite being pushed into the role, are not our public-health officials.”
 
Eater critic (and COVID-19 victim) Ryan Sutton is more blunt: “If you care about the safety of your fellow humans amid a pandemic that has killed over half a million globally and sickened many more — myself included — you should consider a stronger measure. You might consider not drinking or dining out at all, not even outdoors.”
 
To quote a recent Atlantic headline: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
 
I live on Federal Hill and frequently walk home from my studio during peak dinner hour, zigzagging back and forth across the street to avoid the maskless diners sitting on the sidewalks. My partner and I have eaten out twice now, and both times we have been careful to select sparsely attended restaurants with outdoor seating and no pedestrian traffic. One has no staff other than the owner; at the other we planned to get takeout, but the nearly empty patio seemed preferable to eating in the car.
 
I love live music. I love art museums. I love movie theaters. I love the experience of watching things on a big screen with big sound, free from the distractions of home. The Showcase Cinemas on Quaker Lane reopened this weekend. It’s a pretty modern, spacious multiplex with what I’m assuming is a state-of-the-art HVAC system to keep air pumping through it. But is it worth risking the health of others—the ticket taker’s grandparents or the popcorn seller, say —to see Jurassic Park or The Conjuring again? I’m not going.
 
An independent local venue is reopening this weekend with a screening of Jaws, a film that is quite literally about coastal New England governments prioritizing tourism dollars at the expense of public health. Why?
 
Nothing against Jaws, mind you. I actually watched it again last weekend at the Misquamicut Drive-In, an outdoor venue in the shadow of the Water Wizz (RIP). The  patrons are staggered, the salty air is fresh, and the waves can be heard lapping in the distance. If anything got dicey, we figured, we could just sit in the car. But that never happened. I wish their movie selection was more exciting but that I can justify. (They’re showing Jaws all this weekend.) But watching it indoors seems risky. Do you really trust potentially asymptomatic carriers to leave their masks on, unsupervised, in a darkened room for two hours and ten minutes?  
 
I’m no epidemiologist and only know what people tell me, but there are three easy ways to mitigate this pandemic:
 
1. Washing your hands
2. Wearing a mask
3. Not getting too close to strangers
 
Every single time I leave the house, I see people breaking at least two of these rules. Have you been to the grocery store lately? In Stop and Shop the other day I caught three men (men, always men) without masks. One was an employee. At my local co-operative grocery store, narrower aisles mean grocery shoppers and shelf stockers dance uncomfortably, irritably, around one another. Outdoors, unmasked runners and cyclists are spraying their exhalations all over trails and bike paths that are only six feet wide to begin with, even when they see someone coming towards them.
 
Use your own judgment. I’m making an exception for art galleries, for instance. They don’t require you to touch anything besides maybe a doorknob, you generally don’t stay all that long, and many of them are open by appointment only, which used to be the bane of my existence but which in this topsy-turvy world now seems ideal. (Note to gallerists: prop your doors when you know somebody’s coming!) The Newport Art Museum and Jamestown Arts Center are both open now, and I may go during off-peak hours because they’re airy and spacious and never all that crowded.
 
But a crowded live music venue? Even at an outdoor venue with limited capacity, I think it’s optimistic to expect groups of people to remain socially distant and masked. The addition of alcohol to the mix makes the very thought seem delusional.
 
So for now I will follow the lead of Boston Globe restaurant critic Devra First, who is home reviewing instant ramen.