This last weekend I attended the memorial service for my father, who died in July. This isn’t a bid for sympathy. Everyone’s father dies; most of us expect to suffer our bereavements in private; you didn’t know him. But in a larger sense, this is a bid for sympathy. That is, sympathy for us all.
Beforehand, Riverside Church — a grand, storied edifice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — had sent out an email circular to prospective attendees. Perhaps recipients might have anticipated a ministerial reaching out: ‘We treasured Dr Shriver’s membership of our congregation, and Riverside’s clerics wish to convey our sorrow at your loss. We regard his passing as our loss, too.’ Or even: ‘At times of mourning, it’s vital for those left behind to experience closeness and community, and we are glad to provide a venue for this fortifying togetherness.’ But no.
The advisory was stern, chiding and chilly, full of underscoring and capital letters:
‘1. EACH ATTENDEE MUST BE FULLY VACCINATED against the COVID-19 virus and MUST PRESENT PROOF OF VACCINATION to the security personnel who will screen each attendee.
‘2. EACH ATTENDEE MUST WEAR ACCEPTABLE FACE COVERINGS* which in all cases cover both the nose and the mouth throughout all activities and services; facial coverings are removed only during those specific times when actively engaging in a service as a designated speaker or performer and must be replaced as soon as such activity is completed.’
‘3. Each attendee must observe other rules of social distancing and protection, including: a) Congregants will sit in proximity only to intimate social groupings, otherwise will “socially distance”, sitting at least 6ft from other groups of persons. b) Congregants will NOT sing (as singing is known to more actively spread virus), rather will follow along with designated singer or singers, and c) Congregants will take care to avoid all unnecessary physical contact.’ So much for all that togetherness.
The asterisk? ‘ACCEPTABLE’ face coverings were listed out in detail: a KN95, surgical mask or cloth mask of ‘at least two tightly woven breathable layers (ideally with filtration layer)’ that ‘completely covers both the mouth AND the nose’, ‘fits snugly against the sides of your face and does not have gaps’ and ‘has a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask’. ‘NOT ACCEPTABLE’ masks included ‘coverings with gaps that allow breath to escape around top or sides’. This last edict caused me some anxiety, because I have a pin head. On me, surgical masks gape at the sides, because I actually need a mask fit for a six-year-old. I wondered if I’d be banned from my own father’s memorial for my gap gaffe. Bereft, I could be exiled to the pavement for hours, straining to hear escaping bars of music from the sanctuary.
What’s especially pertinent to this anecdote? New York City has no general indoor mask mandate currently in force. Nor does it require social distancing. All the above nonsense is voluntary — the great and the good going overboard to seem even greater and gooder. The Grand Neurosis that gripped the Big Apple in 2020 is showing the sharpness of its talons.
For at least in New York, hypochondriacal hysteria seems here to stay. Sure enough, even the co-op board of my parents’ apartment building, where family gathered before the service, has not got the metropolitan message about elective indoor masks. In order to traverse the 30ft from the front door to the lift you have to mask up, or suffer the doorman’s disgusted rebuke. Only two people are allowed in the lift at one time, although the city has also ditched capacity limits. Inside the lift, we were still provided a handy sanitizer station, as pretty much nobody has absorbed the quiet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory that fomites are a COVID transmission vector in only about one in 10,000 cases. This building houses a large elderly cohort, and I can’t see their casting aside any of these superstitious rituals anytime soon — if ever.
Now, Riverside did let me in, even with my gappy mask, and participating in the service entailed constantly taking the infernal thing off and putting it on again — although one speaker orated at great length while shouting through a mask, as if to admonish her lax confederates whose barefaced testimonials set such a poor example. During the reception, elderly mourners constantly came up to me, but with their faces shrouded I couldn’t recognize any of my father’s friends and colleagues, nor could I discern their condolences through all those ‘filtration layers’.
In the restaurant where a more intimate group dined that evening, we had to show proof of vaccination and valid ID to get in — this at least was a city ordinance — and then mask up to proceed 15ft to our table, where we could unmask. There is no epidemiological sense in this, but real disease prevention seems to have gone by the wayside a long time ago here. COVID has become a pantomime, a series of pious genuflections.
In both the US and the UK, loads of institutions, universities and employers have taken the public health crusade into their own hands, continuing to enforce strict, often scientifically senseless ‘COVID security’ regulations that the law does not require. I’ve a sick feeling this internalized psychosis makes both governments perfectly happy.
One shock of this whole COVID fiasco has been how readily authorities can summon a formerly alien, even repulsive set of cultural norms by instilling widespread fear. When sharing memories at my father’s memorial, I was disheartened to look out on dismally isolated clumps of mourners anonymized by facial swaddling. My father deserved better, and so did his friends and family. But there will be many more such oppressive convocations before any of these protocols are rescinded.
And will they ever be rescinded? It was astonishingly easy for officialdom to manifest a whole new rancid, anti-social ethos. It may prove far harder to make the Grand Neurosis go away.