OCALA, Fla. — Last Sunday I plopped a steaming hashbrown casserole and a bowl of freshly sliced oranges down on one of a row of endless folding tables covered in those flimsy plastic tablecloths you get at the dollar store. The casseroles were outnumbered only by the pans of homemade cinnamon rolls, and the fruit section was meager: it was a good Southern Baptist potluck.
Church ladies buzzed around, removing tin foil from tin pans and putting serving spoons in each dish, while others flipped pancakes on a portable griddle. Rows of chairs and tables were set up under the oak trees and the typical Florida December weather made me regret wearing a sweater. I loaded my plate with food and it wasn’t until I sat down that I had an epiphany: I had missed potlucks. Thanks to coronavirus, I guess buffet-style anything has become terribly unstylish in some places.
Until recently, I’ve been at school in Loudoun County, Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam has been busy inflicting harsher shutdown orders. Masks are required almost everywhere up there, and big gatherings are out of the question. Multiple friends had to cancel their wedding receptions this month due to the new restrictions.
I got so used to wearing a mask that every time I watched a movie it seemed odd for the actors to be bare-faced. Leaving a store, sometimes I’d make it all the way to the car before even realizing I still had my mask on.
It wasn’t until I came home to Florida — where COVID-19 restrictions are much freer and usually left to local government — that I noticed how different life was. On my flight home, I reached from my seat by the window to hand my snack wrapper to the flight attendant. The older gentleman next to me took it from my hand to pass it along. It caught me off guard: this stranger was willing to touch something that I had eaten from? He wasn’t afraid of my germs?
Thoughtful gestures that had always been normal suddenly seemed surprising — which made me realize how many of those everyday connections we’ve lost this year. Since I’ve spent some time in Florida, life has felt incredibly normal. It’s also revealed how abnormal the lifestyle I followed in Virginia really was.
For one, I didn’t realize how much I was missing by not seeing people’s faces. I don’t object to people wearing masks if they feel safer; it’s their personal health decision. But when I arrived at the airport to see my family for the first time since August (mid-semester breaks were another COVID casualty), I could actually see their faces.
I went to a café to study the other day and walked past a young pregnant mother with her toddler in tow. None of us were masked, and the toddler and I got to smile and wave at each other as we passed.
Even things that used to annoy me reminded me of what I had missed. I had to slow down for a school zone the other day because kids were actually in school. I never knew I could feel so much joy at slowing down to 20 miles per hour. There were elementary school kids running around the playground for recess.
The downtown scene here is even further proof that people are living their normal lives, unobstructed by fear. My family went out to dinner the other night at a patio bar overlooking our downtown square, all lit up for Christmas. Families took Christmas photos in front of the lighted trees, and others caught rides in horse-drawn carriages circling the block. The patio was packed with guests from a wedding that had just taken place; it was a huge party, unlike the sweet but limited ceremonies my friends were forced to have in Virginia.
While the chain coffee shops like Starbucks and Dunkin’ are closed to indoor patrons, my favorite local coffeeshop is open and more popular than ever. (And why buy overpriced, mediocre chain coffee anyway?) Looking around, I only see one customer wearing a mask, and only one of the baristas.
There’s a sign taped to the door that says, “The city council feels it is at their best interset to infringe upon your personal constitutional right and feel they can manage your life better than you. We will not do this…we will not force you to wear a mask!”
“All are welcome and we appreciate your supporting local,” the sign adds. I went Saturday morning with my family and we had to wait for a table; we ran into an old friend while we were there. That same day, we went to the downtown farmers’ market. Vendors offered free samples and sold fresh produce, a live musician sang “Folsom Prison Blues,” and no one told me to wear a mask.
I’ve flown in and out of the Orlando airport all my life, and I’ve never seen it half as crowded as it was this month. I can only guess that people are coming down to Florida because it’s open here. People are taking precautions, sure, but they’re also continuing to live their lives.
We’re having friends over and going to church. We’re going out for dinner and drinks, and supporting local farmers and artisans. We’re celebrating marriages and smiling at strangers. And we’re eating a lot of hashbrown casserole.