Covid is over. Though some blue-state hypochondriacs and control freaks refuse to let go, for the rest of us, the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. The White House has gently ushered Dr. Anthony Fauci off the stage. Restaurants, clubs, and concert halls are open. “Vaccine-pass” apps sit unused on smartphones, if they haven’t been deleted. And as I can attest from two recent trips abroad, mandatory masking on aircraft and in airports is a thing of the past.
So why does the ugly detritus of the age of social distancing still blight our physical landscape? Why are there posters everywhere still urging us to get vaxxed, mask up, and socially distance? Why don’t we remove those stupid signs affixed to the floors of churches, supermarkets, and schools teaching us to stand six feet apart (never mind that public-health authorities pulled the six-feet rule of thumb straight out of their, well, you know what I mean)?
It is impossible to quantify the share of public space covered by outdated signage. No doubt, the rate varies by city and region. In areas that never went all in on these measures, the remnant signage is likely to be rare or nonexistent; hard as it may be to believe for Californians and Amtrak-corridor denizens, some parts of the country moved on a year ago, if not earlier. But stroll my corner of Manhattan, for example, and you’d be blameless for thinking it’s April 2020. Whether by sheer force of inertia or bureaucratic determination or, most likely, some combination of the two, much of the Covid signage remains.
Start with my co-op apartment building, where signs sternly ordering residents to mask up and to keep apart were still posted as recently as a couple of weeks ago. Even now, there are still signs in the lobby hectoring us to wash our hands—Covid doesn’t transmit by touch, as we knew by the spring of 2020, but whatever—and to cover our mouths while sneezing, compounding officiousness with an unmistakable insult to our intelligence.
My local bodega still has all the mask signage, as does the one 30 blocks uptown, next to my kids’ school. Speaking of the school, the six-feet markers are still painted on the sidewalk outside the entrance, a relic of when parents were barred from accompanying their children into the building and had to line up outside every morning for drop-off. On Monday, following her first day of pre-K, my 3-year-old daughter found endless amusement trying to match her feet to the socially distanced ones painted on the ground.
Far be it from me to begrudge her such cheap joy, but really, I would rather we extirpated all of this from our environs. For starters, there is the sheer ugliness of all this biomedical signage. As if the mounting piles of garbage strewn about cities like Gotham weren’t enough, there are now, everywhere you look, pictures of vaccine syringes, of emoji-style faces covered by masks, of sexless, joyless stick figures standing sufficiently apart, earning them a cartoon thumbs-up, and so on. Everywhere looks like a clinic; everywhere looks vaguely medicalized.
Then there is the deleterious effect of all this on how people perceive public laws and regulations. Almost no one in my building masks up anymore. Save for a few sad, middle-aged, white women, no one hesitates to get into the elevators even if there are already two residents inside (a big no-no at the height of the pandemic). Likewise, no one masks at the bodega. Masking and social distancing aren’t enforced at my kids’ school.
Yet the signage telegraphs otherwise. It suggests that perhaps some ideal citizen would still be adhering to the 2020-era regime, even if it’s all proved to be pointless and irrational. This ideal citizen—sexless and personality-less like those stick figures, but nevertheless filled with a sense of civic duty—continues to perform Covid theater, even if you don't. And his performance should make you feel vaguely bad about your selfishness, your willingness to sacrifice Grandma on the altar of your desire to breathe mask-free, and so on.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
In practice, I suspect, this disconnect between what the law telegraphs and what people actually do will promote a widespread contempt for law. The effect may be not unlike what goes on in my native Iran, where the official prohibition on alcohol is upheld only in the breach: It's there, everyone pretends to respect it, while many millions indulge in grog secretly imported from abroad or brewed by moonshiners.
And just like in Iran, where an unlucky few end up getting caught and flogged by the Islamic Republic for drinking alcohol, so, here, there is always the possibility that the restrictions will suddenly snap back, whether to combat monkeypox or climate change, and you will be unlucky enough to run into the unbending, zealously committed flight attendant who insists on your wearing a mask—or the Basij militiaman who insists you get flogged for drinking.
None of this bodes well: for the attractiveness of our cities, for our sense of self-respect and intelligence, or for our capacity for self-government.