Updated: Dec 24, 2021
The Omicron variant is creating a surge of new cases across the United States and Rhode Island – bringing with it new restrictions and closures. Elected leaders from President Joe Biden on down have said no more lockdowns, but with COVID seemingly becoming an annual occurrence every winter, perhaps our leaders should talk less about lockdowns and more about incentives for stores, restaurants, and workers each year to just take January off.
When COVID first hit, it was a scary unknown. Now, COVID can still cause horrific damage and death – though much more so for the unvaccinated – but it has the added displeasure of being a common annoyance. The latest variant, Omicron, appears to be less deadly, yet spreads faster, so even if we are each less likely to get very sick, more people could get infected which would lead to a higher death toll. In fact, Vox reported that we could see even more deaths this winter than last with a worst-case scenario being a death toll 20 percent higher than last year.
Naturally, we are seeing mask mandates, restrictions, and even some closures. With this variant spreading so fast and easily, even places that tend to have strict mask policies such as college campuses, have had outbreaks and had to end up temporarily closing to halt the spread. In Rhode Island, our governor has put in place a mask mandate for large gatherings and given smaller venues the option to either enforce mask mandates or provide proof of vaccination.
Mask mandates have tended to work in places where people are willing to wear them, but it is also difficult to enforce and places with mask mandates still sometimes end up having to close. There is also the added absurdity that we let people take their masks off while dining out because somehow we think the virus knows to be polite and not spread while we eat. Mask mandates also put customer service workers in the impossible position of policing shoppers while following the age-old – yet, completely ridiculous – motto of the customer is always right.
Mask enforcement burnout is a real thing. One Rhode Island restaurant will now only allow in vaccinated patrons because according to The Providence Journal "they are fatigued of asking guests to put on their masks.” It is also unconscionable that we ask workers that often make poverty wages to attempt to deal with the kind of shopper who refuses to wear a mask. Workers are also tired of seeing time and time again store owners and restaurant managers put pandering to people for a few extra dollars over enforcing COVID rules to protect these workers' lives.
It would be nice if all small venues mandated vaccination for entry, but with new variants becoming a constant part of life, even that likely won’t be enough. We need to start accepting that we do have to make a few permeant changes because COVID seems to be here to stay.
One thing we have seen each year is that when people move indoors for the winter, or in Florida’s case they move inside for the summer, we see a spike in cases and deaths. We could completely lockdown each January, a time that seems to be a peak month for COVID. Yet, just like mask mandates, lockdowns only work if people are willing to do it. So perhaps instead of a total lockdown, our government should start creating incentives for businesses and workers to take the month of January off –– at least in colder climates, and perhaps in places like Florida we create incentives for shops, bars, and workers to take August off.
Rhode Island and our federal government, have plenty of money to pay workers to stay home each January. In fact, if we plan each year to pay workers to take off January we can create funding streams focused on this. Businesses will likely need very little assistance since it is already a slow month and frankly, predictability is far more important for them. If it is planned each year that most stores close for the month of January, then businesses can plan accordingly. Most retailers might actually prefer to close for January, provided they don’t face public backlash for being closed, because people are shopped out after the holidays.
Too often, I hear how we want to get back to normal. I’ve tired of hearing that almost as much as I’ve tired of this dreadful pandemic. What we need is to start thinking about is how do we create a new normal. Part of that new normal may mean that we all slow down one month a year. Maybe it is time for us all to start thinking about January as not the worst COVID month of the year, but as our annual month-long regional holiday, an annual Jancation as we could call it, to slow COVID.
Even if in the future, taking January off to slow COVID isn’t necessary, it wouldn’t hurt us if we all took one month of the year to slow down and relax.