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Is Going to a Restaurant Murder?: Unpacking the Harm of Social Events in the Covid Era

Social distancing, masking, influencers, and what we owe to each other

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished about a year ago 12 min read
Redditor u/schuwe, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

I am someone who has, for the most part, not stopped masking. I still predominantly use masks when going to the grocery store and public transit. I am a huge proponent of vaccinations (not just for Covid-19, but for influenza, monkeypox, and more). I have not returned to a pre-Covid normal either. My social life consists of small get-togethers, the occasional house party (with testing), and a monthly board game night I organize for a left-leaning organization. To me, these precautions should be treated as a necessary part of everyday life, but I recognize I am in the minority here.

Some online take a far more aggressive stance about those who do not follow these precautions I have described, as imperfectly as I keep to them, to the point of equating going to a restaurant as encouraging murder. As Jessica Wildfire remarked recently on Twitter: "After three years, I honestly don't see what people love so much about eating out that it's worth committing social murder for." This opinion generated quite a stir and is helpful because it cuts to the core of a problem that underpins a lot of activism in the United States: How do you justify existing in a system that harms people?

I am not here to defend this tweet but to defend people's "unreasonableness" when venting about an injustice. I am of two minds with positions like the tweet above. On the one hand, I recognize why some people are so burnout and confused about the state of covid that they are letting precautions slips, but on the other hand, these critics are not wrong that these actions hurt others — a tension we shall examine below.

Why do some liberals and leftists abandon precautions?

I understand why people f@ck up with covid precautions: I do all the time. For example, the other day, I was on my way to the grocery store, forgot my mask, and went inside anyway. I felt terrible about it, but I still did it because I am exhausted most of the time. I often feel like I am the only one in the room who still cares about the pandemic. People will give me funny looks for being masked, and when I have low willpower, sometimes I go f@ck it and throw caution to the wind.

It shouldn't be that way. People shouldn't have to hold up lifesaving healthcare precautions through willpower alone, but that's where we are as a country. Through both the Trump and Biden administrations, the government has maintained a regime that cares more about the economy than human lives, and it's hard to know who to trust. Should I mask? Should I quarantine after travel? How many days? I can read five different sources and get five different answers, and that's not how things should be when it comes to a pandemic.

If I am thinking impartially, which is what debate bros on the Internet always tell me to do, it's naive to hold people individually responsible for that systemic failure. Many people prioritize the recommendations of the CDC over random Twitter feeds and blogs because it's easier to do, and they can't sort through the mass of contradictory information out there.

Does that make the harm from things like long-covid go away? Of course not, but that's not what's being argued here. The point many leftists are making in response to Jessica Wildfire is that this is a systemic issue, and treating it as an individual moral failure doesn't do anyone any favors. As David Klion tweeted recently in response: "Any individual going out to a restaurant now isn't making the difference. The system failed, the collective political will to save more lives faltered. It sucks, but blaming people is pointless."

For the ones that allegedly do "know better" about how harmful Covid is, they're painfully aware that our society is many years away from taking public health seriously. Biden has infamously declared the pandemic over and is the most likely Democratic frontrunner in 2024. We will probably have years of Covid precautions being treated as a matter of personal responsibility, with no reward for those sacrifices other than bragging rights on Twitter (not the soundest of motivations).

In the meantime, those who, again, do "know better" are further aware that there is always the possibility for something worse on the horizon. It's no secret that pandemics are expected to increase as climate change worsens. Combined with a deteriorating global supply chain and an over-taxed healthcare system, there's no reason to expect that we will be able to handle things better as the years go by. The argument I see a lot is that if you are someone who sees this grim future coming — and you look at current activities such as going out to restaurants and clubbing and realize that they might become inaccessible in the future for all but a few — at some point, your willpower is going to teeter out. At that point, you are just going to do the activities you want to do anyway.

This is an argument I empathize with a great deal because I am not a massive fan of willpower being treated as the solution to any significant problem. We cannot solve systemic crises such as climate change and public health as individuals. We need community, and if your answer to a pandemic is to bootstrap your way through it, that's a recipe for disaster.

Critics of this perspective sometimes counter that these actions still put autoimmune people at risk — and this is true — but that didn't start with this pandemic. Try looking up disabled activists' perspectives on our country's response to influenza before covid-19 to understand what I mean. Ableism is ingrained in how our society operates, and your actions will harm disabled people. In fact, your actions will harm all sorts of people on society's fringes (note: this is your gentle reminder that many of the things you buy are made by enslaved people).

Now you can take this reasoning to the extreme. If you are genuinely burnout, the impossibility of reducing your harm down to zero in our racist, capitalist society is almost too comforting. If you accept that some amount of harm is inevitable, it allows you to go on autopilot — something everyone does to some degree, whether it be with white supremacy, pollution, or meat consumption. The reframe becomes that you shouldn't be mad at someone just because they have hit a wall on one of the hierarchies that impacts you personally when there are probably areas where you are likewise stunted. The "everyone's a little bit racist" defense circa 2003's Avenue Q, but for disability and illness.

I will get back to why I dislike this argument later, but not everyone is approaching this with a color-blind outlook. Most are just overwhelmed or burnout. The logical, clinical answer about the current state of covid precautions in the US is that we must stop individualizing this systemic problem. This is an argument I have a lot of empathy for because, without it, you can spiral out of control the more injustices you take on.

Yet, all this being said, this answer still sucks if you are disabled or ill, doesn't it?

Stop Tone-Policing Sick and Disabled People

I have not been entirely honest. I get sick a lot (see American Society Wants The Sick And Tired To Die). COVID-19 hit, and I immediately contracted shingles from the stress. I get regular, debilitating migraines and colds that take me out for days, and that's not to mention all the mental health issues that make proactive measures such as exercise and regular hydration difficult. COVID is a considerable risk to me, and I am by no means the illest person out there.

I would prefer it if I didn't have to choose between having fun with my friends on New Year's and being sick for days afterward, but that's my life. That's a lot of disabled or ill people's lives. Our anger over society choosing to prioritize ones and zeros in a computer over our lives is valid, and there aren't many places to vent that anger. You can't exactly expect everyone to put their lives on hold.

I understand why Jessica Wildfire's frustration exists because it's cathartic to shout your pain into the void. Whenever I am the only person on a metro who is masked, a far too common occurrence, I tend to immediately text my friends and vent to them, albeit on more private channels. I was particularly enraged the other day when I saw a maskless mother cradling a maskless baby in her arms at the height of rush hour. I wanted to scream.

The Internet is filled with many spaces where people are anonymously dunking on strangers because they need to vent about systemic injustices. For example, the subreddit, Are the Straights Okay? has a lot of queer people who criticize ridiculous examples of heteronormativity (e.g., the societal expectation that straightness must be valued over all other forms of expression). When people make fun of statements like marriage being equated to murder or the strange gender expectations put on children, they are skewering norms more than individuals.

If one is straight, it might be tempting to say, "hey, not all of us are like that" (see also "not all men," "not all white people," and "not all Christians"), but this is not about any one individual. It's about how the institution of heteronormativity hurts queer people. These examples allow queer people to vent about the ridiculousness of a system they have very little control over but impacts their everyday lives. It's a form of reasserting the semblance of control.

The advice I would give to someone struggling with the "hey, not all of us are like that" reaction is to move past that initial defensiveness and try to empathize with where that anger and pain is coming from — both from themselves and to the people they are reacting to. Queer people are venting on this Subreddit because the institution of heteronormativity hurts them, and rather than saying, "can you please reframe these accusations in a nicer way" (what some would classify as "tone-policing"), maybe focus on how you can dismantle the injustices instead.

This advice applies to literally every marginalized group, including disabled and sick people. When someone says something aggressively, and perhaps ineloquently as Jessica Wildfire has done here, do you need to dive into a meaningless argument about your hurt feelings or try to explain how you maybe aren't that bad? Because for many people, things are that bad. Rather than take these comments personally, and list out rationalizations, like the ones we outlined in the first section, maybe recognize this is not about you.

All the explanations I wrote at the beginning of this article are technically accurate, but are they relevant when addressing someone venting to their followers about restaurants because they haven't left the house in months for fear of dying? When you are angry and in pain, having suffered the last three days recovering from a migraine because you decided to risk things and have fun at a party (I might be getting a little personal here), someone asking you to be "more understandable" with that anger is psychologically exhausting. When we participate in systems that hurt others — even if they are systems that cannot be easily changed — that hurt still exists. People should be allowed to complain about that harm without prefacing every comment with an in-depth look at the systems at play.

We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and every social interaction will increase the likelihood of someone dying. That is simply the reality of where we are, and again that is not an analysis that begins and ends with Covid but a host of diseases and infections. Influenza still kills people. HIV still kills people. Some groups experience more risk from our behavior than others, and as a society, we don't seem very interested in mitigating that risk more than is necessary to help wealthy people make money.

Why are people treating the words of a frustrated person like a policy memo about to go out to the President for immediate adoption? Many of us are merely looking for people to give a f@ck about our needs. Needs that are not being met, and so we are letting these complaints be known — that's what should be the takeaway. Someone's elaborate missive on why they shouldn't feel guilty is unnecessary here: internalize that injustice is happening and either do something about it or get out of the way.

A Tired Conclusion

I can see both sides of this debate. I empathize with people who are burnt out from covid precautions and want to go to a restaurant, party, movie theater, or whatever fleeting pleasure they can capture in this end-stage capitalism we are suffering under. I am there too. I am also a human that wants to do fun things, and this desire has caused me to lower my standards in ways I have regretted.

I don't take as hard of a stance as Jessica is doing here. By all means, continue to live your life, hopefully with precautions, if it makes you feel like you won't have a breakdown. I don't really care what you do — I don't know who you are, and I have no desire to dictate your life on an individual basis.

It's worth mentioning, though, that no one is preventing you from going to restaurants or movie theaters. Quite the opposite, the disabled and sick predominantly have no say in how our society operates, which means the needs of this community — needs everyone will require eventually (old age says hi) — are not represented in the grand scheme of things. Do whatever you want, but the one thing you can't demand is that those enraged with this system make you feel less guilty. This status quo is killing many people, and that tension doesn't go away simply because it makes someone uncomfortable.

Many actions we do on a daily basis hurt others, and that is just something we all have to live with and learn from. I can't speak for Jessica Wildfire, but in general, if a disabled or sick person is talking online about how people going to spaces like restaurants hurts them and that makes you uncomfortable, my suggestion, respectfully, is to get over it by which I mean to stop taking it personally. It has nothing to do with you, except in the most general sense of you living in a society that doesn't treat sick and disabled people very well.

Take that pedantic, "well actually" energy and direct it at the institutions and people f@cking things up: Insurance companies making it difficult for those to pay for the medication they need to survive; drug companies preventing the vaccine from being easily accessible, so this virus continues to mutate; rich people who would rather we work than rest and heal. Those people have timelines and existences that deserve a stern talking to.

Everything else is just getting in the way.

humanitywellnesssocial mediaself carepop culturehealth

About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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