We walked into the Kan Kun Mexican Restaurant in Beaver, Utah, to order take out dinners. My children and I wore masks.
The hostess, a Latina who also wore a face mask, glanced at our own masks then handed us menus.
The restaurant was half full with many tables taped off to comply with social distancing rules. Fox News droned on a large TV monitor over the cash register.
Two families with four or five children each plus some grandparents sat at long tables. One was entirely blond, the other Hispanic. Three retirees with faces like beef jerky were crimson with sunburn. Three young guys in camo cargo pants and t-shirts sat next to a window.
I know how all these people looked, because nearly all of them stared at us. Not long, but just for that extra beat that makes you wonder if you have, say, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, or an open fly, or a Satanic symbol tattooed on your forehead.
People in Utah are nearly universally courteous. So they simply gave us that long, lingering, and slightly disapproving look, then tucked back into their burritos and quesadillas and resumed their conversations.
Fox News showed video of a demonstration. It was during the early days, when bad actors would torch a franchise or two or loot the Louis Vuitton in the Grove Shopping Centre. It was shot to look like the Mau Mau Uprising, only with designer boutiques in the background.
“I’m sure glad I don’t live there,” one of the camo guys said.
My daughter, who is a sensitive type, said she’d meet us outside and left.
Strangers in a Strange Land
We encountered variations of this reaction across Utah and Nevada. We didn’t stop often, having no reason to. But we would use a restroom in an In-N-Out Burger restaurant. Or we’d drift through the aisles of a convenience store, or place another to-go order.
And everyone — each tow-headed child, each grizzled rancher, each softly rounded wife —turned to stare at us. Not for long. No, not much longer than an extra second, because that would make the stare rude — but long enough.
Over and over, it was like the cliché scene from old Westerns where, when the Stranger swaggers through the swinging doors of the saloon, the locals stop palavering and glare.
To be fair, the virus had not hit many counties in Utah. Also, right wing broadcasters have ridiculed masks. One commentator even said it was a sign of “submission” to wear one. Another claimed it was only the first step in a plot to rob Americans of their freedom. Our president is famously averse to putting one on, and some people still take him seriously.
So I thought about face masks. Sadly, I didn’t have any ideas other than the obvious ones that you’ve probably read on social media already.
But: If we can politicize and make tribal such a simple, obvious step, one that’s cheap and easy, although inconvenient, one that’s backed by science and now by experience, then how will we ever manage the much harder issues we confront?