Swan Dive! Ch. 38: Covid Roulette

Nervous and tearing up, Ruby handed RayRay the letter. After unfolding and reading the single paragraph Ruby printed out on white copy paper RayRay teared too. Words with the best intentions can still hurt.

“Thank you for being my friend and the best boss ever,” Ruby’s letter said. “Because of the continuing threat of Covid-19 I can no longer work as a server at RayRay’s Elbow Room. I haven’t been sick and don’t want to get sick. I don’t want to infect anybody. Please consider this note my official two week notice.”

RayRay used the thick heel of his palm to wipe his eyes.

“I’ll pay you through the two weeks if you need to go now,” he said in a gentle voice.

“I don’t want to leave you short-handed,” Ruby said.

“No, that’s all right if you’re nervous working here.”

“I am,” Ruby said.

Ruby failed to hold back her tears.

So did RayRay.

“I hope you understand,” she said.

“I’m not sure I do,” he said.

“I’m the only person here who wears a mask,” she said.

“Sam does,” RayRay said. “That one you made him that looks like a gull beak.”

“I mean the only person who works here,” Ruby said. “I’m the only person working here who takes Covid seriously enough to protect myself and others. I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want to worry about long Covid weakening my heart and lungs and mind. I don’t want to infect anybody. I don’t want to hurt anybody, RayRay.”

“We’re all vaccinated,” RayRay said. “Boosted, too. Remember when I asked the staff what they thought we should do. We agreed to get the shots and show proof we did. We agreed we were all in this together.”

“Our customers didn’t agree,” Ruby said. “Customers from all over the country, all over the world, can carry the virus, not show symptoms, not get sick, have a great time here at the Elbow Room and infect everybody they come into contact with –strangers, friends and family. Carriers can infect vaccinated people and boosted people and people not wearing masks who can infect others.”

“I thought Covid was over,” RayRay said. “Joe Biden said Covid is over.”

“Yeah,” Ruby said. “And the Biden administration declared it would bring an end to the Covid-19 public health emergency in May.”

“Shouldn’t the president of the United States know what he’s talking about?” RayRay asked.

Ruby stayed focused.

She voted for Biden.

“Elite politicians play Covid roulette with our lives,” she said. “Covid isn’t over. Covid might just be taking a breather, regrouping before mutating into a bigger badder disease.”

“I had Covid,” RayRay said. “And it wasn’t as bad as some colds I’ve had over the years.”

Ruby didn’t remember RayRay going into quarantine. He always showed up and worked. Yet she held back telling him off for risking staff and customers’ lives. Exhausted from nicely explaining her mask and her absence from public events and gatherings of friends and others, begging off with a tedious heartfelt explanation, Ruby wondered how people would feel if she leveled with them and told the truth.

What if she snapped at them the way some customers snapped at her? Why are people so willing to infect vulnerable men, women and children? Why aren’t otherwise smart people civic-minded enough to reduce the number of infections that could bring Covid under control? Why are people who claim to care about her risking her life for stupid selfish reasons?

Ruby also didn’t have the heart to tell RayRay the ugly details about long Covid and what awful health consequences he could face in the future. Most people who contracted Covid didn’t want to face facts about severe health aftereffects that might lie ahead. Covid survivors who continue to live recklessly run the risk of getting Covid again and again, possibly shortening their lives and the quality of their lives with each reinfection.

Each day Ruby faithfully read what epidemiologists tweeted. She read scientific articles they referenced and wrote. She put faith in research, science and real world, real time reality. What exasperated her as much as anything was how people prayed after they got sick. They prayed as they died and when loved ones died. Instead of using the tools science gave us they prayed.

Ruby had no time for religion or prayer. A committed pagan witch with no time for Christianity she nonetheless had to give credit to whoever wrote the Garden of Eden scene in the Bible. Here’s paradise, Adam and Eve. Avail yourselves of whatever pleasures you choose. Just don’t touch the apple. What did Adam and Eve do? Adam and Eve ate the apple. Their greed, weakness and ego helped create a rotten-to-the-core American society based on self-absorbed instant gratification that increasingly defined the human condition. Most people never had enough. Most people never appreciated the simple pleasures of their lives.

Snickers and dirty looks greeted her more and more when she appeared at work wearing a mask. Unmasked patrons sometimes asked what was wrong with her. One woman asked if she was immunocompromised and if she was why she didn’t stay home until she got over her weakness. That same morning Ruby had swum five miles in the ocean. People who got together after work no longer invited her. People talked about her behind her back.

Ruby still wanted to believe in people.

People no longer wanted to believe in Ruby.

Covid already killed over one million Americans.

More than 300,000 more died from Covid-related disease, what experts call excess death.

Ruby Arenas would do everything she could to decrease the odds of becoming a Covid statistic or adding to the body count.

Rarely indecisive, RayRay didn’t know what to say. More than a little embarrassed, he struggled for words. Most people said they wanted to do the right thing about Covid but got carried away by popular opinion which embraced the full-speed-ahead launch of a new normal as good as the old normal. For savvy businessmen like RayRay staying open defined business as usual. Closing was out of the question.

“Should I mandate masks on staff and customers?” he asked.

“You should,” Ruby said. “But mask and vaccine mandates are illegal here in Florida.”

“What can I do?” he asked.

“Install top of the line HVAC air filters,” Ruby said. “But they won’t do much for the people without masks or sitting outside on the patio where they still breathe strains of this airborne virus that travels as easily as cigarette smoke.”

RayRay never sought approval but for some reason wanted Ruby’s.

“Maybe I should close,” he said.

“You probably should,” Ruby said. “Covid kills about 500 people each day, more people than we know. If you knew wearing a mask might keep 500 cancer patients, including children, from dying each day, would you wear a mask?”

Ruby didn’t want to get angry or humiliate RayRay by calling out ignorance with data. The ongoing pandemic wasn’t RayRay’s fault. But the whole country was out of control. She changed the subject, hoping to talk more with RayRay later about measures he could take to stay open and reduce the odds of Covid at the Elbow Room.

“I can still pay rent, RayRay,”Ruby said. “Sam’s paying me a small salary to start a foundation with the donations people sent him for his fight to save the gulls. He said I can work from home and I’ll be careful outside when we have socially-distanced protest rallies. We’ll wear masks, RayRay. You can come.”

“I’ll wear a mask, Ruby,” he said.

“I know you will,” she said.

“I’d like to make a contribution to the foundation,” RayRay said.

Ruby wanted a hug but knew better.

“I’d like to cover your rent until you graduate from college next year,” RayRay said. “I want to help save the gulls. They need you and Sam.”

“And we need you, RayRay,” she said.

Their tears returned.

So did a steadfast resolve to help each other survive in a cruel world made worse when otherwise good people stopped looking out for each other.