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How to pretend like you’re not pretending that this thing is over

The whole point of social distancing is for people to know you're doing it.

If you socially distanced in the woods and nobody was around to see it, did you even socially distance?
If you socially distanced in the woods and nobody was around to see it, did you even socially distance?Ally Rzesa

Let’s be honest here: You, me, and the president of the United States know that this whole “coronavirus pandemic” thing is fading away. No one will be talking about it by Labor Day.

The latest narrative we’re supposed to believe is that we’re hitting daily records in all this disinfecting sunshine, and our three biggest rule-following states, Texas, Florida, and Arizona, are all seeing huge spikes. Good one, you guys. That’s just the media trying to sell newspapers.

Here in Massachusetts, we are so over it. There’s a recent poll out showing that fewer than half of residents are still claiming that they’re being “very strict” about social distancing. That number dropped about 25 percentage points in the month since the last poll was taken. Back then, only four percent of people would admit they were “not very strict”; now that number is 11 percent, and six percent of people will flat-out admit they’re “not at all strict.” We’re not even willing to lie to a stranger on the phone anymore.

The problem is that unless you’re running for reelection, you can’t just leave your mask at home. The rest of us need to worry about optics. We need to look like we’re playing along or else the fun police will start yelling about curves and shared social responsibility and blah, blah, blah. These are the same nerds whom send me angry e-mails when I make a grammer or spelling mistake, and trust me when I say you don’t want to give them an opening.

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So just follow my lead and we can keep pretending that we’re taking this just as seriously as when we were actually taking it seriously.

The first step is to keep in mind that this is all about putting on a show. If you socially distanced in the woods and nobody was around to see it, did you even socially distance? Of course not.

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You need a live audience or it doesn’t count. It does no good to wash your hands unless there’s someone else in the restroom with you. Otherwise you’re just wasting soap. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know if you’re a guy.

But all this virtue signaling can’t just happen one-on-one. It would take forever to let everyone know you’re better than they are. You need a proper audience, and I’m not talking about changing your Facebook profile pic to one where you’re wearing a mask. That was so March.

The problem is that an actual crowd is tricky to come by nowadays, thanks to the public health dorks and their restrictions on group size. So you’ve got to take what you can find, and what you can find these days are lines.

Waiting in line is the true pandemic of this moment. You have to wait in line for everything. The entire world has turned into the checkout at Marshall’s, slow-moving and surrounded by people who look suspiciously unhealthy. It’s painful.

It’s also your chance to shine. By the time you leave the checkout, you can have everyone around you whispering to their children: “There goes the best damn social distancer who ever lived.”

Let’s use the grocery store as an example. Sure, while you were doing your shopping, you passed within six inches of 841 people, went the wrong way down every one-way aisle, and reached over every old person who was taking too long to pick out an onion. And you did it all in a three-month-old paper mask you were only supposed to wear for one day and now smells like the last time the hygienist gave you a good flossing.

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None of that matters. All that counts is how you look when there are spectators present and paused, so while you wait at the checkout with your cart full of meat you’re going to sell on eBay, don’t just give six feet of space to the person in front of you. Give them 17. And be real showy about it, too, because you’re going to need to make sure your potential spectators are not distracted by the magazines about the prince with the red hair who used to be the less-attractive brother. Just to be on the safe side, I like to cough loudly a few times to get everyone’s attention.

When I get to the register 76 minutes later, I spray everything down with Lysol as I load it onto the very end of the conveyer belt, then crawl to the credit card machine and use a set of tongs to insert my MasterCard while lying on the floor, so everyone can see I’m not putting those poor teenage cashiers in harm’s way.

I’m a tad more subtle when I’m waiting for takeout. With a mask on, it’s impossible to make any facial expression that does not come off as a dirty look, so I use that to my advantage. I make eye contact with everyone around me and let them see me mentally counting the feet between them and the person in front of them. Then I shake my head and sigh dramatically, like when my editor says, “I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed.”

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The biggest crowds around these days are at the beach, so when I’m there every day I carry a six-foot pool noodle on which I’ve written the words, “If this just hit you across the face, you’re too close.” I promise that if you connect just right with a small wet child, the smacking sound will get everyone’s attention.

It’s all quite the show for a mild flu. But you know what’s not fake news: the ability to infect people with your awesomeness.

Follow my lead and pretty soon, you’ll be able to sense everyone around you squirming behind their masks, wondering why they’re so bad at pretending like they aren’t pretending.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.