As the cold sets in here in the Midwest, so do the uncertainties of navigating a new season in the pandemic. My spouse and I had barely made it past the mental gymnastics of back-to-school season and debating whether our kids can trick-or-treat, when it dawned on us that our Thanksgiving plans, too, will likely have to change. I proposed to my family that we ditch our usual dinner, pull our warmest jackets out of storage, gather around my parents’ firepit, and eat turkey soup instead. I was only half joking.
The absence of a national response in the United States has led us to this point, trying to manage the risks of an uncontrolled pandemic while sustaining, where we can, our social connections. It’s becoming clear to my family that if we can’t adapt our holiday traditions to the open air and the cold, we can’t safely share them in person at all. The alternative would be to share a meal over Zoom.
Or FaceTime. Or Google Meet. Or Slack. (Are Slack holiday channels a thing yet?) Since the pandemic began, Americans have turned to technology to help us maintain our social worlds while also social distancing. Silicon Valley has capitalized on this need, expanding the already prominent role of digital devices and platforms in our lives. But when I think about the tools that have made me feel most “connected” in the last six months, most of them aren’t computers. They’re made of cloth.
Masks, lawn chairs, picnic blankets, tents, and weather-appropriate clothing all became essential equipment over the summer. They made it possible for us to meet with people outside of our households and in the relative safety of the outdoors. Now, as winter approaches, these simple technologies have taken on new importance as devices of social connectivity. If we’re lucky, they might help us sustain a physical co-presence that even our highest-tech innovations can’t support.
The cloth mask, not Zoom, has been the breakaway technology of 2020. While it’s become ubiquitous and, in many places, required, it wasn’t that way at the start of the pandemic. The US missed key opportunities to make this low-cost tool available and communicate its importance. The Trump administration played down the utility of masks and nixed a plan to ship a pack of five reusable ones to every household in April. When public health officials started recommending masks, my family got our first ones from neighborhood volunteers, who ran donated scraps of brightly colored cloth through their sewing machines to ensure that our community in Ohio was covered.
If masks allowed us to leave the house to run essential errands, it was our foldable camping chairs, pulled out of the basement, that carried us into the next phase of face-to-face interactions. These lightweight polyester chairs, which I bought a few years ago for $8 from the discount supermarket chain ALDI, became indispensable this summer. We reunited with friends—sitting more than 6 feet apart—in parks and driveways. A picnic blanket that we used to unfurl once or twice a year became our moveable table, allowing us to enjoy homemade meals and takeout from local restaurants in the open air. Tents became crucial gear for medical centers running outdoor Covid testing sites; soon enough, office workers, fitness instructors, and school administrators were scrambling to set up tents of their own. During the California wildfires this summer, tents were used as evacuation centers, an attempt to keep people safe from the dual crises of fires and a deadly virus.
In the college town where I teach, tents and weather-appropriate clothing have made the difference between schools reopening and staying closed. The public school district, like many in the country, decided to start the school year online. The district distributed laptops to every student. The local private school, in contrast, took a lesson from past epidemics. It committed to outdoor education, erecting tents in its schoolyard and sending parents supply lists that included masks, sun hats, and rain suits. Now one quarter of the way into the school year, the school is still open for in-person and full-time instruction, with no Covid-19 cases reported so far. Jose-Luis Jimenez, a researcher who specializes in aerosols, wrote recently for Time that it’s “mind-boggling that the US National Guard is not busy setting up open canopy tents at every school around the country.”
It’s not so simple, of course. (Nothing is in a pandemic.) All of this demand for outdoor gear has led to a shortage of equipment. Private schools are more likely than public ones to teach kids outdoors and to also increase ventilation indoors, the most effective means of which is simply opening the windows. Both of these low-tech safety measures are beyond the reach of many public schools, especially those in urban districts with underfunded buildings and limited green space. Early reopening data suggests that relatively low-risk, in-person education is possible for K-12 students this year, but these options, so far, have been less available to low-income families than they have to the wealthy.
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And tents and camping chairs are no substitute for a comprehensive national response to the virus. Our everyday attempts at low-tech solutions are commendable, but offer little comfort when we’ve failed to protect people in the most fundamental ways. I felt like I’d scored big when I secured homespun masks for my kids and reunited with friends with the help of picnic blankets, but these were tiny victories. As the months drag on, we’ve had to pin our hopes for conquering the virus on a series of futurological technologies that are not yet fully materialized: contact-tracing smartphone apps, convenient at-home “spit” tests, and the most vaunted technological solution of all, the vaccine.
Now temperatures are dropping, and I’m watching coronavirus cases rise in my region. The annual ritual of hauling our winter clothing out of the basement has taken on new seriousness. There’s a sense of foreboding, and anger that our leaders squandered the summer, wasting precious time to help our schools and communities plan for the months ahead. While Denmark moves school activities outside, and Germany instructs teachers to open classroom windows and students to bundle up for the cold, my family can only try to make use of these approaches on our own, meeting loved ones with masks, sitting in our ALDI chairs, outside and in ventilated spaces, where we can.
This year, our jackets and scarves won’t just be keeping us warm. They’ll be the tools that keep us connected until brighter days come.