Like most Americans, my husband and I have barely traveled in the past six months. But last weekend we drove to Iowa to see my 95-year-old mother-in-law, who has been sequestered in her senior living apartment. The administrators there have done an excellent job of keeping her safe. I wish I could say the same about the rest of the state.
I grew up in Iowa, but during our visit I had the odd feeling that I was visiting a foreign country whose customs I didn’t understand. Many Iowans are approaching the pandemic very differently than are Minnesotans.
When the virus began spreading, John and I were scared for our own health, since we are both over 70. We hunkered down. When we needed groceries, we wore masks and rubber gloves and visited when only seniors were allowed to shop. We wore masks even when we walked outside. As the weather warmed, we began inviting one or two friends to visit us on our patio, but asked that they bring their own drinks and food. They gladly obliged.
As time passed we grew more confident. We stopped wearing gloves, but kept the masks. We no longer shopped during “senior” hours. I started frequenting my favorite bookstore, Magers & Quinn, followed by a trip across the street to my favorite bakery, The Black Walnut, intent on supporting local businesses. I felt comfortable doing this because of the safeguards put in place: a limit on the number of people in these venues at any one time, social distancing, mask requirements. Magers & Quinn only accepts credit cards. The Black Walnut takes customers’ names for contact tracing. All of these practices gave me a feeling of safety.
But I was unprepared for what I experienced in Iowa. When we took our first bathroom break at a gas station, roughly half of the patrons wore masks. When we stopped at a well-known grocery store in the Amana Colonies, the parking lot was full and the store was buzzing. Again, about half the customers wore masks, no social distancing was observed when we stood in line to pay, and the young Amish women in charge of the cash registers weren’t even masked.
In my husband’s hometown, I stopped at a favorite coffee shop. Only a few customers were inside, but none wore masks. I stood away from the counter while I waited for the person ahead of me to get his order. But when I went to the head of the line, a young mother, small child in tow, came and stood right next to me for the five minutes I waited, chattering to the barista the whole time.
My point is not that I think I acquired the virus from any of these encounters. But I couldn’t help but feel that these unmasked and non-social-distancing people were rude. Rude to me, a person who is obviously a senior, and rude to the mostly masked employees who were serving them.
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I don’t believe Iowans are inherently less courteous than Minnesotans. The difference is the messages being received from state government, specifically governors. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has mandated mask wearing and social distancing. The governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, has refused to do so, saying it is unenforceable, even though Iowa has had one of the highest per capita incidences of virus transmission for many weeks now.
If governors are going to leave decision-making about the virus completely up to residents, then they need to do a better job of educating their populace. They need to convince them that health experts highly recommend masks and social distancing and that such practices are good manners and smart.
Some Minnesotans wish our state were more like Iowa. I have heard Jason Lewis, who is running for a Senate seat, say that we should quarantine the sick and protect the vulnerable while allowing everyone else to resume their normal lives. But what does this mean? How should one behave if he or she sees an older person in a store? Or should older people just stay home?
We have close friends in Iowa with whom we have shared many restaurant meals. They tell us that since March they hardly go anywhere because of Iowa’s lax rules. This means they are mostly shopping online, likely making very few contributions to the local economy.
And that brings me to another point. Iowa’s lax rules are bad for businesses, especially local businesses. We spent much less money there than we normally would have, because we didn’t feel safe shopping. Our relatives feel the same. They are ordering from Amazon and other online venues, often bypassing local shops.
We will keep going to Iowa to see my mother-in-law. But we feel safer among better informed and more thoughtful Minnesotans.
Martha Bordwell of Minneapolis writes about current events, family life, and travel. This article was originally published by MinnPost.