An Unexpected Side Effect

Athena ScalziWell, here we are in month nine of our pandemic, and things are worse than ever! So that’s… something. This pandemic has completely changed our sense of normality in our day-to-day lives. Social distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, working from home, it’s all just kind of become normal almost. Not quite normal, but not far from it. It’s still weird, but not as foreign and strange as it was in April. We’ll call it normal adjacent.

One of the things that bugged me at the beginning of the pandemic was people that didn’t wear masks inside stores/businesses/etc. At the time, there was no mandate in place so technically it was optional, but it still irked me. Now, here in November with over 230,000 dead, it really fucking pisses me off to see how many people don’t wear masks, despite all the signs that say it’s required. I could rant about this for like, ever, but this post is not about selfish fuckers who don’t wear a mask in public. This post is about how mask culture has changed how I, and I’m sure many people, view certain things.

For example, does this picture make you nervous or concerned?

huge crowd of people in times square celebrating new years

How does this one make you feel?

tons of people crowded around a bar

Something about these seems off, right? Seeing all these people, standing so incredibly close, breathing all over each other? Doesn’t it feel weird to see not a single person wearing masks?! Of course, these were taken before the pandemic, and I know that, but it still makes me worried seeing all these people unmasked.

And this has been my problem with any movies I watch lately, too. Any show or movie where the characters go out and about into the world or are in huge crowds and not wearing masks, it throws me off! I’m like, “wait a second, where’s their masks?” even if it’s a movie from like, the eighties or something! It makes no sense, I know, but seeing crowds in any context now is so strange to me. I mean, did people always stand so close before? Did we really just let everyone breathe all over each other all the time? Was there ever a time before we had tape on the floor designating where to stand?

The “Before Times” seem so far away and yet so close at the same time. Like a dream you’ve just started to forget upon waking.

Today is another record-breaking day in terms of cases, and I imagine the trend will continue throughout the holiday season, because, well, it’s the holidays. Traveling, family gatherings, shopping for gifts, other activities that will probably make cases continue to rise. I’m sure even the mall Santas will be wearing masks with little reindeer or ornaments on them.

Please, be safe out there. Wear a mask, social distance, you’ve heard it a hundred times before. And have a great day.


56 Comments on “An Unexpected Side Effect”

  1. You’ll be telling your grandkids how you used to celebrate birthdays by having someone blow all over their cake, and then everyone eats a slice of it.

  2. Yes! So true, Athena. We watched the docu-series LENOX HILL on Netflix (about the NYC hospital). Of course, it was filmed last year before the pandemic, but still it was jarring to see the doctors and nurses and patient unmasked (unless they were in surgery). I’m sure I was not the only one who wondered, so six or so months later, the crew went back to the hospital to film one last episode, this one concentrating on how Covid had changed everything. Very, very interesting.

  3. Yes! I cringe when I watch movies and see strangers so near each other, but we also watch them to remind us of the “before” time, and to hope it returns.
    I’m just a few miles east of Seattle and almost everyone wears a mask here; going massless is very unusual.
    We’re old and wary and don’t think a ventilator would be a nice thing to be on,
    Take care.

  4. How about this? This weekend we watched Rebecca, Hitchcock’s adaptation of the novel from 1940, in black & white no less, and the crowd scenes STILL made me squirm.

  5. Completely agree. I keep wondering where all the masks are on TV also. Though I adore Progressive Insurance’s Zoom meeting commercials.

    One thing that bugged me about the Biden celebrations is that most people were masked, but some weren’t, and I wondered what was wrong with them…and I didn’t hear Biden’s comments, but wondered if he told those people to mask up. He should have! The media always commented on Trump rallies being unmasked, and I personally blame him for doing superspreader events that showed he didn’t even care about his own supporters as long as he got adulation. Haven’t heard the media say much about Biden parties, probably because at least most people were masked.

    Oh well. A crazy world we live in now!

  6. Ms. Scalzi, I don’t know what your reading tastes are, but this phenomenon is discussed a bit in Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire’s) Newsflesh universe. The first book is Feed. It’s a political thriller about a post-zombie world revolving around an election and the fact that you become a zombie from virus activation (fluid contact, not aerosolized), so nnooooottt exactly escapist reading. I find the way the world is changing very similar to the book in some ways. I would not be supposed to learn that your generation is going to be a LOT less enamored of crowds than your dad and mine was.

  7. Yeah – this has actually made watching some wrestling stuff from the before times really stressful – like, watching a few hundred people packed in shoulder to shoulder in a bingo hall in South Philadelphia in the early ’90s shouldn’t freak me out, but it does (at least a little).

  8. The time before the virus now seems eons ago. Mask wearing is ubiquitous in Seattle, and I do react seeing anything with people unmasked these days. It’s amazing how adaptable people are, really, to a new way to do things if they feel they must. But we are very pro-science in our corner of the USA. I do miss traveling, though. My couch just doesn’t do it for me…unless I have a book in hand. I can really get lost in a book’s alternate world and I read for hours at a time now.

  9. This Is Us has incorporated the pandemic right into their timeline. They mask and social distance and quarantine. They drove an RV cross-country so they wouldn’t have to fly. I know it is fiction but there is something encouraging knowing they are enduring it as well.

  10. OOOOh yeah, the whole ::record scratch:: “Oh yeah, this is from the Before Times. Okay. Hoookay— reset is totally a thing. Not so much (well, less so) with old media I’m already familiar with, but really noticeable with current-to-last-winter media. Currently watching Lovecraft County and experiencing this with the restart of every sitting.

    Also, and let’s not forget: the time change. My area is pretty good with masks-inside-stores (with the odd dicknose exception—who always ignore objections; dude, wtf?), but I’m in the habit of grocery shopping early on Sunday morning. Generally pretty low-traffic, but this Sunday, the store was (comparatively) packed. Only thing I can figure: release of Election anxiety + 9am is now the old 10 am, and people time their outings by the sun, not the clock. :-\

    Anyway, yeah. It’s all very weird, and the holidays are going to be even weirder.

    Is it wrong of me that I greeted my employer’s reset back to full WFH with a hearty cheer?

  11. @warpedreality And the grandkids would say, “was this like Russian roulette? Every time a person gets a year older he dares everyone to share his germs to see if they could survive? Was that how you dealt with overpopulation?”

  12. Not unexpected at all, in hindsight. I can’t watch any movie/TV anymore but through the lens of COVID19. Crowd scenes, no social distancing, no masking. All these things make me twitch a little.

  13. only semi-related, but I’m seeking more “glamorous smoking” in movies and TV, these days, and that really bothers me. public health people fought long and hard to discourage young people especially from smoking, and deglamorizing it was a big part of that. but we seem to be backsliding. :-(

    Back to COVID, what really angers me are the vulnerable front-line and service workers – often working for low salaries – who get the brunt of the anti-maskers’ selfishness.

  14. I reread Stephen King’s The Stand about half a year or so before the pandemic started. I really don’t think I’d be able to stomach rereading that now, though.

  15. I’ve been rewatching “Monk.” It’s like a different show than the last time I saw it. Also movies/show where characters are wearing spacesuits used to feel a bit claustrophobic, and now I think “Ah, individual separate air, relaxing.”

  16. Remembering the first few pages of The Stand, I catch myself thinking at least COVID doesn’t seem to be as bad… unless you have it.

    None of my relatives are local, so I am doing my usual vicarious Christmas gifting by wrapping presents and getting them into the mail. This year, I’m sending the packages out a couple of weeks early because even for Priority Mail I have no idea what the handling time will be. It’s the one Christmas tradition that doesn’t make me have to rethink it too much.

  17. I’m not having that side effect, but my wife is. Almost every time we watch something, she says something about how people are too close together and unmasked and it’s freaking her out.

  18. I talked about this with friends a couple months back. Even when we all have vaccines and this becomes a looming shadow….how will it change our behavior? I think a lot of us will have low-grade PTSD about close social situations. It breaks my heart because I’ve always enjoyed scenes like the ones you posted, at least for a little while. Now I’m pretty sure that the first time I walk into a crowded bar I’m going to have a small panic attack – something I’ve never suffered from.

    OTOH, there are plenty of people where I live that don’t see any problem eating out, going to bars, etc. with no masks. Heck, I’m one of the few people in my company that wears a mask or distances. (Our owner is actively anti-mask.) So I guess they won’t see the difference?

    As an out-going, extroverted, people-person, these changes have stolen a very basic part of who I am and I’ll never get it back. I’ll never feel as comfortable as I did before. I mourn the loss.

  19. I went to breakfast a couple of Saturdays ago (had some time between buses). I chose the restaurant specifically because they were clear and straightforward about their masking and social-distancing protocols (as well as the fact I really like their food), they had plexiglass shields between tables, etc.

    I told the server (masked) who refilled my coffee (I masked when she came by) that being unmasked in public, even to eat, felt almost subversive, and not in a good way.

    And then I found out this past Saturday that one of my campmates from Burning Man (2019), who’d been hospitalized for several weeks due to COVID-19, had died.

    I’m with the governor of Maryland–just wear the damned masks.

  20. I am a rather avid Pokemon Go player, and didn’t realize it, but not having my PGo avatar wearing a mask was a little concerning. Recently, PGo put in an option to have your avatar wear a mask. So, yeah, I can even (and do) wear a mask in Pokemon Go!

  21. I have the same reaction looking at pictures of people without masks. A St Louis area barbecue chain (well, if you want to call 2 restaurants a chain) opened up a third one not far from my home. It seems to be doing well – I saw posts on Facebook over the weekend that they were selling out of barbecue before closing time each day – so I went over to take a look at their web site. And my very first reaction was there was no way in hell I would ever go there because no one in any of the pictures was wearing a mask. And these were not pictures of people sitting at tables eating, it was pictures of the staff posing with BBQ trophies or of people standing in line at a food truck.

    It occurred to me after a moment that the pictures were probably taken before 2020, but still that can’t have been the reaction they were hoping for.

  22. “Normal adjacent” feels like a perfect way to put that. (And yeah, people need to wear the freaking mask… this is not even a difficult thing!)

  23. @warpedreality We had my daughter’s birthday party this weekend (outside) and put her 6 candles on one corner of the cake. Then I cut that corner off, moved it away from everything else, and she blew out her candles. My she, my husband, and I got the slices from that hunk. The funniest thing was watching my husband try and help her blow them out, while wearing a mask – it passes the candle test!.

  24. One of the cell phone providers is running disclaimers across the bottom of their TV ads that while the ad might show unmasked people it was filmed with full social distancing. (They’re also cutting back and forth between actors, instead of showing them in the same shot, which might be part of how they’re doing it.)

  25. My sister is teaching preschool virtually to a bunch of three-year olds. To them, this is how school is, and I wonder what they will think when it comes time to go to real-world school.

  26. The first time I had that reaction was watching Russian Doll on Netflix back in April. A lot of the show is set in a crowded apartment for a birthday party. Yikes!

  27. I am not a tv or movie watcher, but my spouse is. And every time I walk through the living room when he’s watching something that was filmed in the Before Times, I do a double-take and start to yell, then realize “oh, right, that’s Before.” It still squicks me out a bit, even with that realization.

    We have a grand-nibling who was born in February, right before things started getting really bad. She’s only ever seen us with masks on. She’s only ever seen any humans other than her parents with masks on. She still smiles, laughs, sticks out her tongue and all the other mouth-related forms of communication that tiny ones use, but it makes me wonder how the communication centers in her brain will develop. Will she grow up to be more expressive with her eyes than we did? Will she smile less and use here eyebrows more to express emotion? And will she be as perturbed as I am by images of throngs of maskless people in films from Before?

  28. Some things can’t be duplicated by Zoom; I dance Argentine Tango, which is a close embrace dance.

    I can tell you that the last time I danced with another person was on March 15th, before they shut down all the dance clubs.

    I miss the intimacy of the embrace, and the connection that entails.

    I wonder what dancing will look like, when certain restrictions might be lifted enough to allow dancing again.

  29. As far as the Covidiots, I’ve started loudly saying things like, “Well, on the bright side, masks let you know who not to shake hands with – I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to wash their hands after they wipe, either.”

    But I’m a grumpy old gray-hair now (or would be, if I had any) and have never really been running for popularity.

  30. CBS is running a disclaimer at the end of “The Price Is Right” that the episodes were recorded before the pandemic.

  31. I can’t say I’ve found crowd scenes in TV shows/movies particularly concerning since the pandemic. But then, aside from gore, which does squick me out, I generally don’t react strongly to media other than generally finding things funny, suspenseful, etc.

    I will note I find myself increasingly tempted to round up a bunch of friends and try to go into a Chick-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby or other conservative-leaning business **masked** but shirtless and shoeless. And when they try and throw us out for having no shirt or shoes, start complaining loudly how our freedom of expression is being violated!!

  32. I live in the SF Bay Area, where there are a lot of Asian people, and my church is about 1/3 Chinese, so seeing people wearing masks when they might have a cold or other disease or there’s a flu around is routine, even before the big fires of the last few years pushed people to wear masks for breathing.

    The right-wing columnists are in the headlines saying Biden’s probably going to make “draconian” mask rules, which seems sort of backwards considering their current Grand Dragon tells everybody not to wear masks, because they hurt his feelings, as opposed to previous generations when Those People all wore hoods when they went out. I guess it’s better than Procrustean mask rules, but people, take care of your neighbors, wear the masks, give everybody a chance to recover, ok? Trump or his fellow gang members have just infected a bunch of their own at their Election Loss Watch Party.

  33. One of my favorite* posts I saw about masks was along the lines of “I like wearing masks. I can’t believe I let you fuckers breath all over me before.”

    *Sadly I’ve lost track of the original post otherwise I’d have attributed it to them.

  34. Yes, we did those things. And we caught each other’s colds and even flu all the time.

    I am not impressed by airlines’ claim of recirculating their air, by the way. I have never taken a flight and sat within a few rows of somebody coughing or sneezing, and not come down with the same thing within a couple days.

  35. “It’s just that masks are terribly comfortable — I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.” – Westley

  36. In movies and TV actors often stand closer to each other than Americans typically do, because that’s how shots are framed. So I’m already twitchy when I see most conversations on TV shows.

    The crowd scenes don’t wig me out quite so much, probably because I don’t go out anywhere in the pandemic so I’m not as adjusted to the new reality. I’m not personally experiencing the “crowd/not crowd” contrast. My one experience was a visit to my farmers market where it wasn’t crowded by pre-covid measure, but was too crowded for my liking in covid times, so I heel-turned out of there.

    A bigger shock for me is every time I see characters smoking in restaurants or—LOL—on airplanes! I’m old enough to remember very well when people could do these things, but it’s been so long since it happened in reality.

  37. I know exactly what you mean, Athena.
    I’m reading a murder mystery series featuring two septuagenarians.

    One scene had them attending Marti Gras in 2020, an event we’d later learn was a major super-spreader event.

    Books taking place before the pandemic break my heart a little; the feeling is something akin to what I experience when reading post-apocalyptic movies/books wherein the survivors watch DVD’s and hear stories from “before.”

    Then I get angry, because it didn’t have to be this way, not for long, anyway.

  38. I think many of us have some degree of agoraphobia now…crowds and public places in general don’t feel terribly safe, whether or not the people are masked.

    Back in March, it felt incredibly strange to walk into a bank wearing a mask: normally they ask that you remove hats, sunglasses, etc. when you enter.

    Nowadays I don’t want to eat in a restaurant, because it means being in public but not wearing a mask…and sitting in a room with a whole bunch of other unmasked people. It makes me very uncomfortable. I’m wondering about face shields; it seems like it should be possible to eat while wearing one of those, while still reducing potential virus particles at least a bit.

    I keep thinking about what all the masking and social distancing and lack of physical contact is doing to the socialization of young children, particularly infants and toddlers. Are they more afraid of strangers (including other relatives) – anyone outside the immediate family they see every day?

    Colonel Snuggledorf I wonder if anyone’s done a study on cultures that normally mask the lower part of the face. Are they better at expressing emotion with just their eyes, and interpreting it?

    (Total tangent here: Mom’s pretty much stopped wearing lipstick, since it would be behind the mask anyway. Have you seen anyone ramping up their eye makeup now that the eyes are the most prominent feature of everyone’s face? That might be fun.)

    Noel Lynne Figart: I love the Newsflesh series! (And am grateful that we haven’t reached the “shower with bleach regularly” stage. The smell of bleach doesn’t agree with me, and I’ve never had the slightest desire to be a bleached blonde.)

  39. I’m in Australia. It’s been 2 months since the last community transmission of COVID in my state. We are almost back to normal life. What will be weird for us is the massive difference that will arise between those in different countries with different social scarring from the virus.

  40. @ warpedreality:

    Oddly enough, I’ve never thought about just how unsanitary the whole birthday ritual actually is.

    Someone with boozie breath or yellow teeth blowing their uckmouth cloud all over a cake that everyone else will eat.


    Seriously considering a cupcake tree when/if things ever return to normal and parties are safe to throw/attend.

  41. @ ozthrox:

    “It’s been 2 months since the last community transmission of COVID in my state. We are almost back to normal life.”

    I’ve heard the same from people in several Asian countries. Life is almost back to pre-COVID, bars and restaurants are opening, gatherings no longer cause outbreaks.

    It’s the white tourists everyone’s afraid of over there, because of how dismally the so-called “Western” nations botched their pandemic response. Definitely something to point out next time someone brings up the developed/undeveloped world argument.

    All this makes covidiotism even harder to stomach. Had we only done the right thing (or anything sensible, really) early on, we would have been back to 85% normal by now. Instead we’re heading into the winter season with the death equivalent of 9/11 happening every 3 days.

  42. I’ve been feeling exactly the same – shuddering when seeing crowd scenes in older (well last years) films. And I’ve always been a little cautious of large crowds in person anyway.

    But then again I have exactly the same problem when seeing someone smoke in slightly older films.

    I suppose all cultures change gradually, this has just been a large sudden bleep – the question is – if we get a vaccine etc will we get past these feelings or will a larger segment of society end up with a permanent phobia for crowds.

  43. I don’t watch much TV or movies, but I do notice myself reacting this way to things I read or the occasional video or ad I catch. I think it’s the pandemic is an inflection point or a discontinuity in both near-future science fiction and literature as a whole: in places where it makes sense to mention it as part of the context it will be really noticeable if it’s missing. Besides SFF, I read a lot of romance, and I have no idea how writers of contemporary romance will deal with this. Meet-cute a stranger? Go out to a bar? Get together with extended family? Hell, no.

    I keep thinking about a throwaway line in Diane Duane’s Stealing the Elf King’s Roses. The characters are from an alternate universe similar to ours but with key differences. They are temporarily in an alternate universe to them, running through the streets of New York, and one of them is noticing differences and thinks, “And where’s the World Trade Center?”

  44. Thinking about your post over the last few days, I found myself spinning out a (we hope) AU where Covid never quite goes away. (Say, long-term immunity turns out not to be possible, frex.) For whatever reason, going about bare-faced becomes as socially intolerable as going out without pants. What immediately lept to mind would be the evolving entertainment sub-industry of digitally adding masks to all video media produced before March 2020.

    Riffing on @Colonel Snuggledorf’s question, critics would look back at productions from the Before Times, and remark on how lifeless and wooden the acting was, failing to take into account that actors had the whole lower half of their faces to work with. Actors with experience playing surgeons and other professions where masks are SOP would have a leg-up in the profession. Would images of people, bare-faced, out in public become a new type of porn? The only time it’s acceptible to show the lower half of peoples faces is in a single shot, indoors, with wide margins on either side? A fascinating possibility, which I really really hope is only fantasy.

    I like @warpedreality’s #snootjohnson, even better than #dicknose. And why is it they absolutely ignore pressure to cover up? I mean, they’ve got the mask, it’s right freaking there.

  45. We’ll get used to it though, and will start to think not being in crowds is perfectly normal. I sometimes get this same feeling when I see people in movies smoking indoors, (Jaws) or something will happen in a movie( Wrong Turn) and I’ll think to myself, why don’t they use their cellphone?

  46. I’m not having that reaction, though I can certainly see why anyone else might.

    What I find myself wondering is, when television shows start up again – the ones set in the present day, at least – how many of them are going to address the pandemic, and how many are simply going to ignore it as though it never happened.

    I think I’m more likely to have unexpected reactions to shows that I know were filmed during and immediately after the pandemic ignoring it completely than I do with shows I know pre-dated it.

  47. I’ve always been wary of crowds. New Year’s Eve in Times Square was never on my bucket list. I used to joke that if you saw me at a party and my back was against a wall, it was because no corner was available.

    I recall earlier in the year I watched the most recent season of Westworld. In one establishing shot, an extra (apparently Asian) walked across the frame wearing a face mask. It seemed out of place to see a literal mask in a world where nearly everyone is wearing a figurative mask.

    I have lived through many paradigm shifts (including the one where it was popular to say “paradigm”). I was a kid when kids still wandered around unsupervised, like the kids in ET.

    I remember adults smoking almost everywhere. Ash trays were built into arm rests in planes, trains, and automobiles. Now, I find it shocking to see smoking in films and TV. Dave Chapelle pausing his monologue to take a drag on SNL this past weekend…wait, what?!

    I was a young gay man in the 80s, and I lost several friends to AIDS. They would go to the hospital and never come back home. Or they would leave town and I would hear through the grapevine that they had passed. I went from considering condoms a turn off to seeing sex without condoms as a mood killer. Now it seems that with anti-retrovirals, sex without condoms is once again acceptable.

    I remember 9/11, of course. I experienced it from a thousand miles away in Texas, but it was just as real an experience watching the towers fall on TV as it was for my friend who watched from the roof of his apartment building in Brooklyn. Maybe not as real as the experiences of those who were in the towers or in the dust and ashes that blanketed the nearby streets. That day changed travel forever (Or accelerated changes that were already underway, because of other terror attacks in other parts of the world).

    COVID-19 is another in a long line of events that changed life as we know it. It will certainly not be the last one.

  48. Athena, you are not unusual: I have various quirks too.

    An acquaintance of mine, years ago, couldn’t watch any gay or straight pornography older than the 1970’s if the characters weren’t using condoms. (AIDS hit circa 1980)

    When I came back from overseas and was a security guard it was second nature to step away from a buddy when things got tense, because of the army’s slogan of “don’t bunch up.” And of course for the Alien movies I would totally cringe when anyone was out of arm’s reach of their weapon.

    Because I grew up in an all-caucasian region, it takes a while, when I’m watching a media scene of all-caucasians, before I clue in to think “hey, this is weird.” Same (it takes days) if I physically go to an all-white (Anglo-Spanish) area in the States.

    I once asked a young palaeontologist if it was weird to go out on a dig where every single person in the camp had a university level I.Q,: He had never thought about it.

  49. I leave it to the other members of my household to gasp in alarm at crowd scenes on screens! They are good at it!

    Needless to say, the Australian experience of COVID is quite unlike that in the USA, which is different again from other parts of the world. The state where I live has only a tiny handful of new cases linked to known hotspots. People tend not to mask in public unless entering premises (health care facilities, e.g.) where it’s required. Another thing we are definitely not doing is clustering all together in big sticky lumps. Everyone I see is keeping a nice healthy air gap between them and the next nearest person. Exactly the way I like it.

%d bloggers like this: