The jerk was making a stink over being forced to wear a mask.
No, this was not Alabama or Texas, or even Michigan. It was St. Joseph Island, Ontario — a place I’ve come to most summers of my life. The summer of 2020 most emphatically broke that streak. I didn’t know until three weeks ago if I’d be allowed into Canada even this summer.
The jerk was just ahead of us in a short line, waiting to get into one of the few restaurants on the island to survive the pandemic. The restaurant business isn’t brilliant there, even in the best of times. But we were used to having three or four decent choices on the island.
The jerk was loudly lamenting that lack of choice. He appeared to be in his late thirties, with a wife, two kids, and a bad attitude he was happy to share. In answer to a question I didn’t ask, he assured me that the failure of restaurants on the island was a failure of the government and its anti-business policies. Which was why we were all forced to wait in line.
I considered asking him if he thought Covid might have played a slight role — that maybe having no customers for a year might have been a factor — but I didn’t really want to hear his answer.
My Canadian friends and relatives assured me he was exactly the sort of wingnut we Americans recognize instantly. Idiocy respects no borders.
To this point the subject of masks had not come up. But when he got to the head of the line, he refused to wear one. He was offered one — every business keeps a ready supply — but he turned it down. This prompted the hostess to escalate the complaint to the woman who has owned the restaurant for as long as I can remember, and who accepts no bullshit.
Especially since the government can shut her down if she lets the jerk in. The law is on her side — she can refuse to serve him — but it requires her establishment’s strict compliance with the mask mandate.
From here, the story peters out. The jerk and his family left quietly, and no doubt hungry. But it got me thinking about how the two countries are handling the virus, and what it says about them.
St. Joseph Island is actually a stone’s throw — in places almost literally — from upper Michigan, but the Covid response on each side of that border is noticeably different.
Going into a store on the island is a throwback to March 2020, when we were all deathly afraid, trying to make sense of this virus that had shut our world down. There, every store and restaurant — with one apparently willful exception — now has signage that mandates masks and strict social distancing. Every employee wears a mask full time. There’s the inevitable hand sanitizer just inside the door, and your host will prompt you, with Canadian nice-ness, to use it.
From all reports there has not been a single case of Covid on the island. Not one. Granted, its entire population is less than some apartment buildings in Manhattan, but it’s still striking, in a culture-shock sort of way, how universal the response seems. I assume most people are vaccinated.
It was the same story in Sault Ste. Marie, the nearest city, 25 miles away. I did business in a bank, a bike shop, a Home Depot, and a supermarket — and everyone was masked, including customers. It was expected of everyone, and nobody made a fuss. No further jerks were sighted on this trip.
At home in Michigan, the stupid politics of mandates are wearing people out, and mask-wearing has become much more casual than it should be. Our vaccinations have made us blasé, even as the out-of-control delta variant screams at us to be more careful. We need more mandates, not less — especially for vaccinations — but we pay more attention to fools than is good for us.
On the island — and, if I may generalize, in Canada — the mandates seem mostly wanted and respected.
Of course, St. Joseph Island can’t speak for all of Canada, so I asked my friend Doug, who can, how he accounts for the differences.
He attributes it to a long cultural affinity for collective effort. Canada is a huge land mass with a tiny population, a harsh climate, and an embedded understanding that everyone needs to pull together to make it all work.
He adds that Canadians have little impulse toward rugged individualism or the myth of self-reliance. The self-made tycoon is not widely admired.
If I understand Doug correctly, the Canadian constitution codifies, at least by implication, the ability of the collective to override the individual. Collective imperatives carry more legal weight in Canada than they do in, say, Texas, where self-reliance currently reigns, and where appalling numbers of people are exercising their individual freedom by dying in its name. And taking up valuable hospital beds in the process.
But for Canadians, what this constitutional foundation means in practice is that they are free to overwhelmingly approve and buy into the public health measures imposed by their government. They accept the science, and they trust the doctors, academics, and public health officials who are managing the pandemic response.
So even after a slow start, seventy-two percent of the population is now fully vaccinated. Eighty percent favor mandatory vaccination for the country. And Covid rates are currently manageable, knock wood.
Which is not to say Canada doesn’t have its share of numbskulls, or that distrust of government isn’t on the rise. Even on the island, there was a low hum of discord regarding one store that was ignoring the mask mandate, despite having been reported multiple times. Not to mention that jerk in the restaurant.
Canada has barely one-tenth our population, so it’s hard to compare apples to apples. But I think it’s safe to say that America, as a whole, could clearly use some lessons in the benefits of collective will. If we’d approached Covid with even a fraction of Canada’s attitude toward the public good, the pandemic might well be over by now.
Instead, we keep making stupid mistakes that we seem doomed to repeat.