Breath, masks and the ethics of grocery shopping

I think a lot about breathing just now, gentle reader.

Breathing in.

Breathing out.

Also, the masking of breath. I’m sensing a shift – one of many – in how we’re supposed to behave. I read about it recently in The Atlantic.

The debate about whether masks are helpful in preventing the spread of COVID-19 is top of mind now. It raises questions about how the virus leaves your lips – is it borne by larger globules (of mucous, saliva, water) or is it borne by smaller globules called aerosols, that evaporate when they hit the air, leaving the poor virus shivering in a cold Calgary wind, like an infant expelled from a womb?

This aerosol version of transmission leaves us wondering if, when we occasionally leave our homes for some much-needed fresh air, we are walking through a mist of shivering viruses.

As the Atlantic article points out, we shouldn’t be asking whether the virus is airborne or not, we should be asking how far virus-laden globules can travel. Viruses have more agency than humans right now – they can travel as far as their globby homes will carry them, while human travel is now a shameful, dangerous undertaking, unless you have the good (bad?) fortune to be a truck driver. But the question about travel in virus-land is this: how far do they go and how long are they active enough to matter?

The answer to this question, as my mother noted the other day over the phone, seems pretty obvious. “No kidding,” she said, pausing as she listened to Anderson Cooper explain about globules in the background. I couldn’t make out his words over the phone, so she started to paraphrase this newsflash about new transmission possibilities, and then interrupted herself. “I could have told them that a long time ago!” she cried. “The closer you are to someone, the more likely you are to catch something, for heaven’s sake!”

At which point I said something snippy about the amount of time she spends watching CNN. I won’t quote myself.

Before you judge me too harshly, gentle reader, for snapping at a mother who is simply trying to keep herself informed – a mother who has mitigated many a virus in her day, having raised three children – please know that this phone conversation with my mom took place just after I spent an hour ordering my weekly groceries online, only to discover that they would be delivered eleven days later.

I apologized to my mother for my short temper and told her I would talk to her at 8:00 (she now checks in with me at 2 PM and 8 PM so I know everything is okay). I sat there with the phone in my hand and considered the effect that the relative size of globules was having on my life.

First of all, the revelations around COVID-19 science seem so precarious. You can read studies about transmission, but it’s still early days. Studies are called “preliminary,” and there aren’t many available yet. Such is the nature of evidence. There seems to be a lot of waiting involved. I envision the researchers around the world, hungry for knowledge of the crown-shaped virus, perched like baby birds, mouths flung wide, waiting for the numbers to trickle in.

Some day we will have hard facts, I suppose, but for now we do the best we can with the information at hand.

So I feel like every decision I make will be wrong when I wake up the next morning.

To return to the grocery shopping dilemma: my husband and I deliberated the other day about whether to shop for groceries in person, or online. We weighed the implications, read up on the science. Was it better to spend 40 minutes in a store with other people – some of whom might not respect the rules for physical distancing – or was it better to receive groceries into our home from someone who is out there in the world, driving throughout the city, stepping onto dozens (hundreds?) of front porches every day, possibly breathing in the lingering globules of each of their customers?

“We can wipe the groceries down,” my husband says.

I tell him that a physician on CTV said that the virus is not usually transmitted through food (did he really say “usually” or am I imagining that?). He said there was no need to wipe down that box of Raison Bran when you get home from Superstore.

Then I saw comments on social media saying you can poison yourself by over-enthusiastically cleaning your food.

I get out my laptop and do a google search. Should you sanitize groceries COVID?

No recent results. The entries from a week ago – March 30 – are so dated they are almost hilarious.

I try again. Do groceries need to be cleaned COVID.

Still nothing.

I search the CBC news site. Nothing new on handling groceries.

My husband turns on the TV, starts watching a Big Bang Theory rerun.

I search the Globe site. Scroll through an FAQ document and find advice on how to wash vegetables and fruit.

“Aha!” I cry, my voice rising over the TV. Sheldon is discussing his roommate agreement with Leonard. They are standing outrageously close to one another.

But then I notice the publication date of the FAQ doc.

“March 25?”

It might as well be March 25, 1894.

My husband and I look at each other. We are both exhausted. How can we not manage the simplest of tasks?

“Go ahead and order the groceries,” my husband says. “I’ll go to Safeway tomorrow and get a few things to tide us over. We’ve still got all that stuff in the freezer.”

I remind him that the frozen soups and pastas are meant to be our emergency stash, in case one of us gets sick.

I have one eye on Leonard and Sheldon, who are arguing now, probably sending spittle onto each other’s faces, about the nature of communal living. But I am also kicking myself for not ordering the groceries sooner. Of course there would be a huge backlog for grocery delivery. What was I thinking? My husband and I are being so careful to avoid all human contact; it seems like some sort of failure to throw all that diligence away for a trip to Safeway.

Sometimes I hear myself thinking these things, and I realize how crazy it sounds.

If someone had told me a month ago that I would be spending hours trying to figure out how to get groceries without going to a place with other human beings in it, I would have laughed out loud.

Really, the paranoia.

If someone had told me that the Canada-US border would be unpassable for tourists, I would have laughed even harder.

Or that people were no longer working in their offices, unless they had been deemed essential by some higher power. Or that people had been told to stay in their homes, unless they were exercising or going to the grocery store. Or that we should avoid other people, period.

I went down to the ridge above the Bow River the other day and was walking on a hill (I’ve given up on the concrete pathways; you never know when a jogger will run past and pant globules in your direction). I heard a noise and there, not ten feet away, was a person.

When did I become so alarmed by being twenty feet from another person?

I told myself that we are still just two people, we’re all in this together. I gave him a little wave, and called out, “Hi.”

He looked away, recoiling as if I had thrown a poisoned spear directly at the spot where his fontanel used to be. Or at least I think he recoiled – from twenty feet it’s hard to tell.

Despite the warmth of the sun on my face, despite the sheer beauty of the hill and the river below and the mountains in the distance, I felt discouraged.

Like everyone else in Canada – in the world, I suppose – I wonder how long this will go on. And I know that my problems – the grocery deliveries and the recoiling neighbors – are minute in comparison to what others are going through. What others will go through.

I know that health care workers do not have the luxury of avoiding other human beings. It’s their job to walk right up to people who may have the virus, take their temperatures, ease thin plastic threads up their nostrils, and, in darker moments, thread plastic tubes down people’s throats.

They would probably shake their heads if they read this post, wondering at how I could feel exhausted by making decisions about grocery shopping. But they would probably be glad to know I’m trying to stay home.

I also know that there are people working in the very grocery stores I’m working so hard to avoid. How many of them have quit over the past few weeks? But if you quit, you won’t receive government funding.

And who do I think is delivering my groceries? Why do I get to stay home while they load up my cart and drive my order to my home?

“Maybe going to Safeway is the best thing,” I say to my husband.

He turns away from Sheldon and Leonard and tells me that’s fine, he can go tomorrow. He’s taken on this task alone, saying that it makes sense for only one of us to buy groceries.

And when he says “buy groceries,” I know he really means, “expose themselves.”

He’s told me about the arrows on the floor of the grocery store, the cashiers with masks and shields. They’ve taken all the precautions, and for the most part, people follow the rules.

Because standing next to someone, even if they are healthy, is a bigger concern today than it was last week. The Atlantic article quotes Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech expert on airborne disease transmission, as saying something remarkably similar to what my mother said the other day:  “People envision these clouds of viruses roaming through the streets coming after them, but the risk of [infection] is higher if you’re closer to the source.”

I make a mental note to call my mother and apologize for snapping at her. It’s not her fault that the grocery delivery service takes eleven days to deliver groceries. I should just buck up, get out my sewing machine (I think it’s in the attic over the garage), find a piece of tightly-woven fabric, research the best online patterns for masks, sew a mask, and go to the grocery store like any normal human being.

But apologizing to my mother is the important part. Because if I’ve learned anything from the shivering bits of virus we call COVID-19, it’s that family and friends are precious.

This is not an earth-shattering revelation. You may be thinking, thanks, Jane, for that ground-breaking insight.

But it’s all I’ve got.

As my world shrinks down to squeeze inside the walls of my bungalow, the conversations with family and friends expand to fill that space.

Sure, I’m working. I’m teaching my course. I’ve got my writing contracts.

But if the phone rings, and it’s one of my sons, I scramble away from my keyboard and take the call. I do have a new rule, though. I try to walk as I talk on the phone. Or I do a bit of yoga as I chat. This is my new exercise regime.

The phone is my new gym.

The point is, people are a priority. People are what we should avoid, as the spitters of those various-sized globules, but they are also precious.

I tend my relationships more deliberately now than ever. I pass on information, vent my spleen, and I listen. My son tells me about his new project – building weights out of concrete – and we laugh about potential drawbacks. He has an idea for threading chicken-wire through the cement, and I worry about what would happen if he dropped the weight.

I’m worried about so much more, because he is not here, in the walls of my bungalow; he lives an hour away. But that seems to be an unresolvable problem, and I focus on the weights instead.

As I walk and talk I also think about whether he should come back and live with me and my husband. What germs would he bring with him? What would we expose him to, what with my forays to the ridge and my husband’s trips to Safeway?

So we stay in our separate spaces. We talk on the phone. I walk and talk. As I complete my loop, moving  from living room to kitchen, kitchen to den, den to living room, I learn to find solace in the timbre of my son’s voice, the shock of his laugh, the comfort of his silences.

I wonder how long this will continue. How long will the crown-shaped virus jump from our lips and shiver in the newborn air? Will we all be wearing masks, the next time I go to the ridge? How long can I continue to perform this loop through my own home, speaking with family and friends, imagining my dining room alive with their presence?

We’re about to find out.


The faculties of the soul: a pandemic of virtue


Dreaming of proximity


  1. Reta Prasse

    Thank you for taking the time & choosing to put your energy & considerate thoughtfulness into this blog. It was captivating & nurturing with it’s shared concerns during this unusual time. You have a unique writing style that is refreshing!

  2. Simonetta Acteson

    Thank you AGAIN! Transfixed by your words, echoed, but not nearly as eloquently in our home!

  3. Collette Quinn-Hall

    Beautiful Jane. What pleasure it is to read my thoughts on a page. These are words to know we are not alone.

    • Jane

      Thank you, Collette. Sometimes it helps solidify those cloudy feelings when you write them down, or read them.

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