After 9 Months in Isolation, I Went to a Super Spreader Event
The virus scared me so badly that I went into self imposed lockdown in April.
I have sat in my little quarantine bubble for nine long months. I wasn’t completely cut off from civilization, I made very short trips to one little shop once a month for necessities that could not be delivered by Amazon. I live remotely- so far from modern life that I’m nearly in another era. My internet runs at the speed of a 56k modem; I don’t have city water or a well, but must have water delivered from a central source. There is no central air or heating, just electric space heaters to fend off the bitter northern cold that sets in every winter. We don’t have things like Uber eats or Grubhub out here and no grocery delivery services. I don’t have any neighbors without fur, and they visit me on my porch nightly and have gained their own fans social media.
I am not entirely anti-social. Prior to the pandemic, I did many things; I spoke at events, performed as an entertainer; acted in films like Todd Stephens’ (Another Gay Movie, Edge Of Seventeen) upcoming feature Swan Song. I would treat myself to a dinner out a few times a month, a twenty minute drive in any direction, both ways. I was by no means a social butterfly either, mostly attributed to social anxiety and the unpredictability of panic attacks, a condition shared by many transgender people who have to navigate potentially combative social scenarios every single day.
When the pandemic made itself known as far more formidable threat than our leaders led us to believe it was, I went into an elective lockdown. I didn’t see friends, casually shop for groceries on a whim, eat outside my home or even open my door all the way for mail deliveries or that poor census guy I made stand on the porch in 90 degree heat. When I had no choice but to leave my home for necessities, it was an entire production. Hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, mask, rubber gloves and it was only to go to a small mini-market. If it was crowded, I would wait in my car until there was as few people as possible so I could dash in with limited contact, grab my goods and make a quick escape. But, those instances were far and few between. Most of my days- and nights- have been sat in my living room watching the seasons change with my primary companion being a gaggle of Raccoons who’ve taken me as their Queen.
I listened to the news every day. I cringed as the numbers of those infected steadily climbed along with the unthinkably tragic deaths… people saying goodbye to their Mother, Father, Sister, Husband, Wife, Brother, Grandma… via an iPad, unable to be with them, or hold their hand, or extol any measure of comfort. It felt so departed from our nature as humans to watch those who are our most cherished succumb to a virus scared and alone. Unnatural.
I sat in shock and horror as Donald Trump toured across the country luring hundreds of thousands to rallies in spite of the nightmarish circumstances unfolding before our eyes; this disturbing new reality indiscriminately taking countless lives, framed like a morbid game of Russian Roulette where no one could predict who would become infected, and worse, who among them would die. Trump supporters thumbed their noses at the warnings of the scientists, ignored the tearful pleadings of the Doctors and hospital nurses who are now traumatized, themselves, having seen more death in a month than most do in a lifetime.
I was so angry.
I stood in support of all the experts insisting people cancel Forth of July, Labor Day Weekend, Thanksgiving with extended family and hung my head in shame when so few Americans listened as the world shook their heads in pity at our waltz into disaster.
For nearly a year of my life I have sacrificed valuable, measured time of it in the hopes that my effort would save myself or someone else.
Now we have reached the point of social tragedy we have been warned about for almost a year. Hospitals are at capacity. People are being sent home to die. Prisoners are hauling corpses into semi trucks turned into makeshift morgues. In the last five days, more than a million cases of COVID-19 have been reported, and moreover, the daily death count is increasing by numbers unlike we have ever seen in this country… equivalent to catastrophic crashes of 10 747 planes per day; 280,000 dead… or the entire city of Orlando.
And we have no leadership. The President is far to busy angling to stay in power than use what little time he has left to provide any guidance or relief. The Republicans in Senate want a small relief bill that offers no assistance to those who, in the last nine months, have gone homeless, whose cars have been repossessed, whose credit cards have been exhausted, who can’t buy groceries for their children so are queued up in bread lines not seen since the Great Depression, for access to basic food resources. The Republican bill offers no help for small businesses, but stands to give a great tax cuts and loan deferments to the richest corporations in the country. Nothing for your friend whose bakery is closed, or for you. That $1,200 dollars was all you were worth. Meanwhile, Kanye West and David Beckham, as well as the President’s closest allies; Lobbyists and political donors of high profile Republican Senators gobbled up 80% of Covid Relief funds back in April. Billion dollar businesses took millions in payroll protection money intended to take care of their employees, and then unceremoniously furloughed or fired them altogether, keeping the money. Karen Pence, the Second Lady of the United States, teaches at a famously anti-LGBT school that took nearly a million dollars intended for small businesses.
We are in quicksand and sinking fast. Projections of future deaths have reached nearly 500,000 by February, 2021. What does one lonely little trans lady living in a swamp, cut off from society who has no family do?
I decided I wanted a Pumpkin Pie.
My dog- my Dogter- Allatu, passed away from me on December 2nd, 2018 and took a big part of me with her. We’d been companions for over a decade of my life, through my early 20’s into my late 30’s. Formative years of my life I shared with her. When my family rejected me for being trans, I had her. When I went through a separation from my partner of 11 years, I had her. I was never alone. I dressed her up for Halloween, had birthday parties for her, and every year, for my December 13th birthday, we shared a Pumpkin pie. I didn’t have a pie that year she died, or any after since.
Ridiculous, I know. My reasoning was simple if not naïve. I knew the rate of infection was worse than ever before. Surely most people would be home. Despite predictions of doom bellowing hourly from the news, a part of me wondered if indeed it really is that bad out there. If it was, how could so many people experience this apparent mass disassociation? I began to doubt my own judgement; Had I isolated for all these months out of simple paranoia? Was I living in some parallel universe where the COVID virus only mattered to me and Wolf Blitzer? Was I, one day, going to emerge from my rotting farmhouse that had become a time capsule of 2020 emotional chaos to find that life went on without me? That niggling wonderment was my enabler.
I used to love Wal-Mart. I walked those aisles with the enthusiasm of a Senior Citizen with a clear path in a mall. Often, though, it was 2am. I had befriended most of the employees. I preferred shopping in the wee small hours, but entire children have been born in the time since I last saw a WalMart.
I figured I would pop in and out, no harm, no foul. I followed my protocols, looking not altogether like 90’s horror icon Dr. Giggles in my rubber gloves, and face mask doused in so much sanitizer I smelled like a moonshine distillery- which I would swear they’re making it out of nowadays because it smells suspiciously different than before.
With a sense of undeniable anxiety, I stepped through those sliding doors, wiped down a cart and began to make my way to the coveted Pie.
There were people with no masks, people with masks on their chin or just their mouth with their nose exposed, toddlers screaming in the middle of aisles, the self check-out area was a mosh pit. I found my heart racing as I was dipping and dodging to, somehow, maintain 6 feet of distance from anyone as I was pushed along, shoved out of the way, had speed shoppers with carts full of Christmas decorations crawling up my back. Remember that old Pac-Man game? The one where you worked your way through the maze avoiding all the ghosts that would kill you on sight? That was me, hurdling around corners, backing away from huddled crowds throwing boxes of cheerios over their shoulders, doing U-turns to avoid an oncoming herd of maskless teenagers. And suddenly….
Suddenly, I just froze.
Somewhere near the socks and underwear section toward the middle of the store where lines for cash registers wove around racks of disheveled clothes, the cacophony of voices ran together like a full auditorium before a Broadway show; I just stopped breathing.
I realized, without a doubt, I was in the epicenter of one of the actual super spreader events. It wasn’t one of the Trump Rallies or a Family thanksgiving we were warned about, but Walmart.
Walmart. Surrounded by easily 200 people crammed on top of each other shirking all guidance and safety suggestions, living their lives as if nothing at all was happening while they stood, every one of them, in a orgy of germs. And no one cared.
As where I was hyper-cognoscente of every place I stood and everything I touched, from the handle bar of my trolley to the door handles of the freezers that thousands of people had touched throughout the day as they reached for their frozen pizzas, all the way to the self checkout machines requiring you use the touchpad and signature panel smeared with what was surely snot, I came to a dark realization.
A lot of conversation that has revolved around super spreaders have been specific to circumstances (Holidays) or intermittent large scale events (Trump Rallies) But no one has discussed the ongoing, daily super spreader that is open from 7am to 12pm and in some places 24 hours that has a rotating door that sees thousands of people cross its threshold.
With so many services packed into one building to satisfy the needs of every shopper, whether you need groceries, your ears pierced, your car fixed or prescriptions filled, WalMart has made itself the one-stop-shop for all commercial activity in towns big and small across America where most other businesses have shuddered their doors.
Naturally, anyone in need of, well just about anything at all, heads to one of WalMart’s 4,756 US locations, even in a global pandemic. According to Capital Research, an estimated 37 million people visit WalMart every day.
It occurred to me that while we have complained about and universally condemned Trump Rallies, house parties and Family gatherings of more than 10 people during the holidays, the biggest super spreader has been operating right in our own towns, and people you know have been attending every single day.
While no research has been done on coronavirus spikes in proximity to WalMart locations around the country, after what I witnessed, it would be hard to believe that it hasn’t played an active role in the uncontained spread of the virus- more so perhaps than the schools that have been closed in many states.
We are also the only country allowing this. In the UK, big box stores have strict occupancy limits, allowing 10 people in at a time to get their essential goods. Employees in attendance take every customers temperature upon entry, makes sure everyone is wearing a mask and guides them down aisles in orderly, predetermined directions so shoppers do not crowd or cross paths allowing for effective social distancing. This, even during government imposed lockdowns that have seen rate of infections shrink by three quarters, a huge impact on the virus once spreading like wildfire.
As the death count in America rises to new records each day, Canada has announced that strict measures taken have succeeded and the virus is now under control. In fact, most countries in the EU, once radically spiking, are seeing measurable improvement in COVID spread, mostly due to public cooperation with government guidelines and social rules implemented.
America is, of course, the worst case scenario. And while so many people, like myself, sat in my bubble and cursed aloud at the flagrant irresponsibility of Thanksgiving Dinner and the Trump Rallies, WalMart was hosting up to 10,000 shoppers a day, over a hundred at a time, with minimal protocols in place to reduce the risk of infection- except for the always-empty cannister of disinfectant wipes inside the front door. No “Mask Rule” was enforced despite the sign on the windows- likely because there were too many people to adequately police properly. No one was cleaning the self check-out units as customers poked and smeared their finger across the display panels to tell it that, no, cash back was not necessary or confirm they wanted debit rather than credit, or the dial pad where they punched in their personal bank pin number to authorize their purchase- the same pad that had been used by hundreds before, and hundreds more would after as they filed through long lines throughout the entire morning, day and into the night.
At least Trump Rallies ended. At least those who went to a holiday gathering knew who they were in the company of should anyone later fall ill. But Walmart is a clear coronavirus breeding ground, an ongoing, unrepentant super spreader… and no one has said a word about it.
Even though, 81 Walmart workers in Worcester Massachusetts tested positive for COVID forcing the store to temporarily close.
4 WalMart employees tested positive for coronavirus in Las Cruces, New Mexico forcing the store to close for 24 hours.
In Wenatchee, Washington, a Walmart store Closed after 21 Walmart Employees Test Positive For COVID-19.
An East Dallas Walmart closed for a day after several employees tested positive for the virus, although a store spokesperson refused to say how many.
Employees at two different WalMarts in Sioux Falls, ID tested positive for coronavirus and admitted to working while infectious.
While Walmart CEO Doug McMillion issued a memo to concerned employees reassuring them that less than 1% of employees have contracted the virus, RetailDive reports that United for Respect, an advocacy group for Walmart store workers, alleged that there have been “at least 22 deaths and thousands of COVID-19 cases nationwide reported among Walmart associates.”
This urged UFR to develop its own independent tracker, claiming “Walmart has failed to disclose positive cases to customers, the community, and Walmart’s own employees in stores.” By the end of June, just a month after it launched, almost 800 confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported by the tracker by WalMart Employees.
Walmart has responded to the controversy over their mishandling of the COVID crisis by issuing multiple pay hikes to incentivize their front line workers to stay on the job.
But do they recognize that they could be operating a COVID infection factory? In my brief time in the frenzy, absolutely no precautionary measures were observed being enforced by the employees. With WalMart being the central shopping hub of so many towns peppered across America and millions of shoppers daily, it would only take one careless employee to infect hundreds of customers. It would take one sick customer galivanting maskless through the store refusing to adhere to social distancing practices- and not being asked too- to infect a dozen more.
I didn’t get my pie. Instead, I took my kitty litter and waited at great distance for an opening in the mosh pit where I check out and made a mad dash for the exit vowing never to put myself at the mercy of WalMart during a pandemic again.
With hospitals overflowing, our concern as a society of compassion must now consider those in dire need of medical treatment for non-COVID related illnesse as well. People who slip into a diabetic coma, patients who have a heart attack and need urgent care, stroke victims, and women who need to give birth; People with sudden need for medical attention from an industry we have stretched to its limits will die of things they might have, just a year ago, easily survived.
This isn’t just about COVID anymore. Wear a mask.
And for Christ’s sake, WalMart, limit your occupancy and refill your cannister of sanitizing wipes.