By Michael P Coleman

When the Covid Convos series launched back in March — and that seems like a lifetime ago — we all thought it would be short-lived. We believed that we as a country (if not a world) would do the right thing (thanks, Spike Lee), wear our masks, and distance ourselves physically while remaining connected.

We’d flatten that curve and get coronavirus behind us by summer, in time to ride our favorite favorite roller coasters, attend baseball games and fireworks displays, and enjoy poolside barbecue with friends and family, free of masks or rampant, airborne, lethal viruses.

It was neither the first time, nor will it be the last, that we were wrong. Dead wrong.

Over six months and over 205,000 COVID-related fatalities in, and in the wake of a president who consistently downplayed the virus and politicized face coverings, it looks like we’re in it for the long haul. Contrary to what the president has to say, most medical experts agree that we won’t have a vaccine by November 3rd.

Even if we do, getting that vaccine to a large enough number of people to make a difference is going to be a challenge. I’m as sick of COVID-19 and its restrictions as you are, but we’ll be bedmates with the virus for awhile.

Last weekend, I learned that self advocacy — plain ol’ speaking up for yourself — is as formidable a protection from coronavirus as are masks and social distancing. If fact, it may be more effective.

Late last week, I received an invitation to an October social gathering. It was a more than COVID-friendly invitation, with a reference to social distancing and the party’s spacious, outdoor venue.

At first glance at the invitation, I was excited! The menu was mouthwateringly enticing, and as I’ve not been to or hosted a social gathering since mid-March, the group of potential guests promised a fun time.

But that potential guest list seemed a little too long for me. When I doubled it (since significant others were invited), I quickly realized that the crowd would be too large for me to feel comfortable as I do my best to adhere to the CDC’s coronavirus guidelines.

I struggled with how to broach the subject with the host, but ultimately I did what I’ve always done best: I squared my shoulders, planted my feet, grabbed my iPhone, and soon found myself saying “Hey, man. I’m not coming to your party!”

(You see, I’ve always been like the kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes when it comes to telling people that they’re buck naked!)

As it turned out, the party’s host had been wondering whether his own excitement about getting folks together had prompted overzealousness about hosting what would have been his first post-COVID party. I think my call was the universe’s confirmation that he should postpone his soiree until, again, this virus is behind us or, at least, under control. And I hung up the phone feeling that the friendship was even stronger than it had been before I received the invitation.

Later that weekend, I was walking along the upper levee on the gorgeous, serene American River in Sacramento, gloriously mask-free, when I heard a buoyant “Hey, Mike!” from the levee’s lower walking path. I soon realized it had come from a friend, Carlos, who I’d not seen in a couple of years. Carlos was soon trotting up the hill with his two rambunctious dogs in tow, ready for a characteristic hug from me. I’m a hugger. I hug.

At least, I was a hugger, pre-COVID. This time around, not so.

As I backed away from Carlos’s hug, he extended his hand to shake mine, as a bit of a consolation greeting. “It’s OK, I don’t have COVID,” he insisted, semi jokingly. “I’ve been tested.”

“That’s all well and good, but I can’t trust that,” I replied, before I could even catch myself. We then had a pleasant but slightly less comfortable catch-up than we would have had, had I hugged Carlos like I longed to. During the short conversation, I learned that he had just come from dinner at a crowded restaurant downtown, and that he was hosting a friend from out of town in his home.

Now, the restaurant, Azul, is one of my absolute favorites, an incredible Mexican place in the trendy Lavender Heights area of town. That said, I’ve not been there in over six months. And if I went today, it would be to pick up a styrofoam clamshell packed to the gills with my favorite, extra spicy Camarones a la Diabla…which I’d subsequently eat at home on my patio.

And hosting guests in said home hasn’t been done in several months, either. A good friend of mine showed up, very unexpectedly, from LA early last summer, and we visited with him from six feet away, standing outside of the house with masks on. Other dear friends stopped by for a surprise visit just before Memorial Day, at the dawn of California’s shelter-in-place order. That visit was limited to our front stoop.

So it was clear that Carlos, despite his insistence that he’d been tested for COVID-19, wasn’t taking the CDC’s coronavirus guidelines are seriously as I was and still am.

So my lesson from the weekend — and it was very much a reminder, as I’d learned it decades before — was to speak up for yourself, even when it’s uncomfortable. Let that inner voice — that still, small voice — be your guide. In the age of COVID, it just might save your life.

Until we get the virus behind us, I’d rather run the risk of offending a friend than have someone have to tell my daughters that their dad was dead of COVID-related complications — all over a mask-free hug or handshake, or a dinner that I just couldn’t pass up.

Published by Michael P Coleman

Freelance writer. I used to talk to strangers and get punished. Now I talk to strangers and get published.

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