Woog's World: Coronavirus is changing our social norms

If you don’t like rules, you’re in luck. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown them all out.

In a crisis like this, it’s all hands on deck. FEMA is building hospitals in days, however and wherever they can. Along the way, some building codes will be bent — they have to be.

Medical students are being sent to the front lines, before they officially graduate and take licensing exams. Good for them; they are desperately needed.

If you’re doing something as normal and important as getting married, you don’t need to pick up a license in the same town as your ceremony. That’s fine. Who really cares?

But there are other rules too — the unwritten ones, the unspoken, implicit ones by which we navigate our daily lives. In Westport and across the state and nation, we are figuring out new ways to interact with hundreds of people we used to deal with every day, without even realizing we were.

In Westport, our social norms were not always Golden Rule-worthy. It’s hard to do well unto others, when you look right past or through them.

Right now, though, we’re looking at one another. COVID-19 does not care if you’re a CEO or a CVS clerk. It’s coming for all of us, and the only way to keep it at bay is to look out for ourselves and each other.

One of the big debates in town — and it can only take place in a place like this — is what to do about our house cleaners. They’re integral to our lives, but the very tasks they do (coming from outside into our homes, touching every surface there, spending hours with us when we are home too) seem suddenly fraught with danger.

On the other hand, we recognize now how vulnerable these women and men are. They depend on steady work from us. They have their own families to take care of. They may not have health insurance, or be able to file for unemployment.

So we’re renegotiating, gingerly, the rules about house cleaning. Many Westporters are asking them to stay home, but paying them anyway. Some are asking them to clean only outside items, like patio and deck furniture. Some have said simply, “Sorry. I can’t have you here.” Left unspoken is the next line: “You’re on your own.”

Our relationships with store personnel have changed too. A month ago, we would have been apoplectic if Walgreens was out of one item. Now we know there are shortages. We’re learning about supply chains, delivery schedules, and the fact that shelves don’t stock themselves.

At least as importantly, we are looking at those shelf stockers through new eyes. They’re working many hours a day, dealing with worried customers who may or may not be spreading the virus to them, and yet they are trying their best to help us. They apologize for shortages, ask what else they can do and accept our thanks with embarrassed smiles.

Our relationships with educators have also changed. Westporters have always been proud of our schools, and we’ve known that our staff is talented, creative, caring and whip-smart. But underlying it all has been an unspoken demand: It’s your job to get my kid into the best college possible. We did not spend a ton of time looking under the hood to see how that worked.

Now, parents know. With updates from administrators on what exactly distance learning is and how it differs from in-school education; with kids doing hours of work a day at the dining room table; with the realization that planning lessons, connecting with students, answering questions, being accessible, nurturing confidence and being both flexible and consistent is hard, mothers and fathers are recognizing there is a lot more to education than tests and grades.

They’re seeing that school is much more than a math or English class. It’s a place of security and stability, of socialization and personal growth. It’s a place that can’t be replaced by a laptop lesson, no matter how skillfully crafted.

And they’re seeing that the difference between an A- and a B+ pales in comparison to the difference between life as we knew it, and life as we know it now.

Life during the coronavirus is much different than life before it. Life afterward — whenever that is — will be different too.

We will be happy to see some rules, formal and informal, return. We’ll realize that many of them were unneeded, or even divisive.

Let’s hope we never look at house cleaners, store employees and teachers the same way again.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.