A few months ago, I had a birthday. Kind of a big one. Not the celebration. That wasn’t big at all and happened only on Zoom.
But the reality is, I’ve now moved into a demographic — age 60 and over — that’s seen 97 per cent of the COVID-19 deaths. That tends to get your attention, so I’m pretty careful to follow all the appropriate safety protocols.
But I’ve also come to a decision about how I hope to live my life going forward. I’ve decided that I can’t hide out at home anymore: COVID-19 is going to be with us for some time, and what I need to start figuring out is how to get back to doing some of the things I used to do — just safely in an age of COVID-19.
So, this past week, I did two things I haven’t done in more than six months: I went to the movies, and I played hockey.
I didn’t take the decision to do these things lightly, and I made it only after considerable discussion with my family. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that everyone who weighed in tried to talk me out of doing both.)
Before the pandemic, I used to get together with a cousin of mine, and we’d hit the cinemas every few months. When my eldest son found out I intended to recommence that tradition, he called me and asked, “You sure you want to do this? You sure it’s safe? How are you going to handle this?”
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(As an aside, it’s amusing that I’ve now apparently reached the stage of life where my kids worry more about me than I worry about them.)
Then my wife found out and urged me not to go. I do pay attention to her advice in these matters because she’s a health-policy expert. “Are you going to wear a mask the whole time?” she wanted to know.
“Of course,” I responded.
“How are you going to eat popcorn?” she asked, looking quite skeptical.
“Well, I’ll flip the bottom of the mask up, shovel it in, and put the mask back down,” I explained.
She grudgingly gave the green light, but she wasn’t happy.
As it happened, it was much ado about nothing. When I arrived at the old Colossus Cinema (now renamed Cineplex Cinemas Vaughan), I was stopped the moment I got inside the front doors. A polite but serious young woman standing behind a Plexiglas screen put me through the usual questions about how I felt — did I have a temperature, did I show symptoms such as … well, you know the drill … had I been out of the country over the past two weeks, and so on. Only then did she let me past the front door.
In what must have been a 250-seat cinema, four of us showed up to watch the 9:30 p.m. screening of Christopher Nolan’s new movie, Tenet. Physical distancing was not an issue. And, yes, I wore my mask for (most of) the movie (which was loud, occasionally incomprehensible, and wonderful, although how the studios are going to make their $200 million back with so few people in the theatre is beyond my powers of accounting).
You’d think enjoying what was basically a private screening would be preferable. It actually wasn’t. I missed the buzz of having lots of people around, but it sure was good to be munching popcorn and watching something impressive on a big screen again.
Playing hockey was a somewhat different story. I’ve played with the same pick-up team for 38 years and hate missing games for any reason, COVID-19 included. But now that the arenas are back open, I wanted to play.
My wife thought I was nuts. She thought it was insane for me to be playing in an atmosphere in which players would be huffing and puffing and breathing on one other. I tried to assure her that, at this stage of life, we don’t quite manifest the same collision style of play she’d just seen in the Stanley Cup finals.
She was having none of it. She sent me three articles about how the virus can persist in a cold, indoor, poorly ventilated atmosphere. She pointed out that the dressing rooms, given their lack of ventilation, would provide wonderful opportunities for the virus to spread. She wasn’t happy.
But I was determined to give it a go. We argued back and forth for a while, but I held back my best argument for last. “Hey,” I said, “the arenas wouldn’t be opening if Eileen de Villa thought they weren’t safe. If it’s good enough for Toronto’s chief health officer, it’s good enough for me. And I’ll change into my equipment at home, so I won’t need the dressing room, okay?”
Argument over. Off to the rink I go.
For 38 years, I’ve been arriving at the arena, and, for 38 years, various caretakers have ignored me. It’s not personal. They tend to ignore everyone. But this time was different. As soon as I stepped inside (mask on, incidentally), the Zamboni driver approached me to take me through the new protocols.
“We’ve opened up all the dressing rooms so we can limit five players to each dressing room,” he said. “So you’ll all be spaced apart as you put your stuff on. There’s an X on the wall where you can sit. As soon as you’re done, bring your duffle bags out and put them against the wall beside the ice. After the game, you’ll have 10 minutes to get your skates off and get out. No showers. Got it?”
I got it.
Obviously, the arena employees were taking seriously the need to put new protocols in place. Our game convener admitted he wasn’t sure how long this would all last. But everyone seemed quite pleased to be giving it a try. One of my teammates played with a mask on. I tried but quickly gave that up. I just couldn’t get enough air, and, at my age, I’m already sucking wind at the end of every shift.
The only sort of gross thing was getting off the ice, taking skates off, putting shoes on, and driving home in my stinky equipment. But I’m happy to endure that if it means continuing the wonderful tradition of fun, fellowship, and fisticuffs (okay, not much of that anymore) on the ice. I should also note we have lost a few players in my demographic who have decided the situation is too risky for their health.
Candidly, I don’t know if what I’m doing is stupid. Maybe it’s an unnecessary risk. But my 17-year-old daughter’s school just reported its first COVID-19 outbreak, and yet she’s going back to school two days a week and taking all necessary precautions (I hope) to make sure she doesn’t bring the disease home with her.
I guess I’ve concluded that this virus is going to be with us for a while yet: maybe months, maybe years. And I can either spend that time hiding in my basement or figure out how to recapture some of the normalcy of life before COVID-19.
I’m choosing the latter. For now. But I may be about to lose my best argument. Last Friday, de Villa wrote her provincial counterpart and recommended that indoor sports activities be cancelled again.