In 1958, at the age of seven, I walked into Katz Drug Store and sat down at the lunch counter and asked to be served. At the time, everything was segregated and I was not allowed to order and enjoy a hamburger and a Coke.
On the third day, things changed. The answer was finally, “Yes.” I was reassured, at least at that moment, that equality was mine.
I was taught that I was entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, as I now walk toward 70 years old, I had no idea that this special year would bring many unpredictable and shocking events.
Four months ago, we found ourselves being introduced to a medical situation that has changed the world. Who knew that the coronavirus would take us hostage.
Several weeks ago, my sister and I decided after not seeing each other for several months to go to a restaurant, to sit outside on the patio with our masks on and have a meal together, socially distancing, of course.
When we arrived at what is considered a “five-star” restaurant, the hostess and another customer did not have on their masks. I asked, “ Where are your masks?” The hostess said nothing and the customer said “ I don’t need it. I don’t have the symptoms.”
I told her that I was wearing my mask to save her life and she responded, “Great, then I don’t have to worry about my life.” With much disappointment, I was shocked that my life was not important to her.
We were not able to sit outside because it was 104 degrees; however, there was social distancing in the restaurant. When the busboy arrived with napkins, flatware and no mask, we asked, “Where is your mask?” He responded that it was not required. Much to my surprise, no wait staff had on masks.
I started to think about how hard I had worked to gain the opportunity and have the freedom to eat at any restaurant in Oklahoma City. Now, 60 years after my Katz Drug Store experience, I am having to make a life or death decision regarding having a meal merely because a restaurant has made a decision to not require their staff to wear masks.
I had an aha moment and immediately called Chili’s and asked about their safety protocol. They immediately said “All staff wear masks, there is social distancing, tables and menus are sanitized and 95% of our staff are wearing gloves.” I told them we were on our way.
Something is happening in Oklahoma that has made people close their ears to the traumatic outcry made by those who have lost their lives to this crazy situation.
As I was leaving the “five-star” restaurant, I asked the manager about the rules and was informed that as of June 1, masks were not required in restaurants. I responded, “Let’s see what September looks like.”
The federal government is warning us that major changes are happening right now. The numbers are increasing at a rapid rate; however, the governor in Oklahoma has indicated that the state will not close down. For some reason, it appears as though the issues are all based upon economics, even though the number of people being impacted by the pandemic is increasing.
I am concerned. Things are not looking good.
In the beginning, things appeared manageable or at least it appeared that way.
First, the city governments required that companies close. “Don’t go to work, work from home.” Then, the CDC advised us to use hand sanitizer or wash your hands constantly. And finally and most importantly, we were asked to “wear masks.” Three things. How simple can it be?
Families were concerned about protecting those in nursing homes, grandparents and elders like me, folks in jeopardy of getting the virus. Over time, something got lost in the interpretation regarding wearing the masks, even though the production of the masks has now become a major industry.
For a brief period, people believed that “I am my brother’s keeper.” Lines were drawn at the grocery stores to measure six feet social distancing. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are committed to keeping their customers and staff safe by cleaning their carts and only letting a few customers into their stores at a time.
Cities depended on guidance from the CDC; however, they never made wearing masks a necessity. Politicians in Oklahoma did not make wearing masks the law. In many cases, they did not even wear masks themselves. The messaging has been confusing.
Needless to say, many Oklahomans are not wearing masks.
I go to the grocery store and to the post office and people are not wearing their masks. A guy told me, “I believe in Jesus. I don’t need to wear the mask.” Another guy told me, “It’s not for real. I don’t need to wear a mask.”
The same actions are being taken at fast-food restaurants. The people at the windows are not wearing masks and gloves. They just don’t get it.
People have returned to doing business as normal.
I am asking: America are you listening? Are you paying attention?
Are you listening to those 120,000 people across the country who have died of the coronavirus? They are begging us to do the right thing.
Every day the numbers are increasing.
Oklahoma young people are not listening. The bars and the gyms are full. Statistics indicate that in a 24-hour period, cases have increased by as much as 300.
Are we paying attention?
COVID-19 virus has impacted relationships, created fiscal issues, changed the way we educate our children and has made us redefine what is important.
Every day I would pray:
Thank you for the oxygen that is flowing through my lungs.
Thank you for the safety that you have provided for my home and my car during the night. And God, how can I be of service to you and to the planet.
Now my prayer has changed. I yell, God Please Help Us!
Recently, I sat in a funeral home conference room about the size of a matchbox to make arrangements for my dear brother who passed from smoke inhalation. Sadly, to say, my nieces and nephew were sitting along with the funeral director without wearing a mask.
As we started to talk about how to honor my brother, I knew that he would not want our lives to be jeopardized by not wearing masks. In early June, we hosted the memorial and the 20 people in attendance wore masks with one exception. There is always one person who just doesn’t get it, my cousin’s wife. She refused to wear a mask even though my cousin had one on. She said she was being protected by Jesus.
God has given most of us common sense. Why aren’t we using it?
My niece informed me that my cousin’s wife did not have to wear a mask if she did not want to. Might I add, my niece was not wearing a mask.
Obviously, they did not hear my brother say, “America, are you listening?”
Statistics are indicating that we will not have to wait until September. The numbers are increasing daily and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt is examining the statistics carefully in order to determine what strategies and laws may need to be implemented in Oklahoma City.
I hope he will understand that there are many Oklahomans who have the talent and skill to help make Oklahoma a great state, but staying alive is the first step in that process.
The Oklahoma City-County Health Department is reminding us that going to bars, weddings, funerals, faith-based venues, private events and indoor physical venues such as the gyms are a no-no.
Initially, wearing the mask was to protect others, but now the CDC is saying wearing the masks is for oneself, too.
America, are you listening?
Your family, your friends, your business associates and co-workers are talking to you.
The tagline for my conversation series “What Lies Between Us with Ayanna Najuma” is: “When people have knowledge, people can take action.” Maya Angelou said, “When people know better, people will do better.” I wish people would use the knowledge that they are receiving to keep themselves and others safe.
Believe me, America, I am listening.
Ayanna Najuma is a civil rights icon, founder of “What Lies Between Us with Ayanna Najuma” and “I Have A Voice Now!” contributor to Oklahoma Today, The Oklahoma City Herald, The Oklahoman, Art Focus and Black Art in America. Contact her at email@example.com.
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here.
CORONAVIRUS STORYTELLING PROJECT
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