From the land of the free, and masked shoppers


In a town where one couldn’t buy toilet paper for three weeks, the American people came to terms with their plight.

Palm Springs is the darling hideaway of the Hollywood famous, and here I observed the world’s most prolific consumers doing the unthinkable.

They stopped shopping and hunkered down in their desert homes, in a surreal scene which was slowly mirrored across the nation.  America just stopped.

Not in World War II, the Cold War nuclear standoff, nor even 9/11 has it happened.

On the day the world stopped, it had been like any other day: optimistically American.

Gas prices soared to new highs and the Californians packed the freeways as usual.

Palm Springs was festooned with colour, ahead of Coachella, the soon-to-be cancelled music festival which annually attracts nearly 100,000 people to the area.

Then came the news from California Governor Gavin Newsom, all bars, restaurants and gathering places in the state would have to close.

Words like ‘Covid’ and ‘corona’ entered the lexicon, but most interestingly the good folk of Palm Springs just plain ignored it.

“America doesn’t stop for no virusm” a plain-clothed elderly Palm Springs resident hollered at me in front of a very clearly closed Marshalls Department Store, in an equally-quiet strip mall, where only the fast food giants like McDonald’s continued to roll.

That’s drive-through service only, no sit-downs, thank you very much.

He should have said, “No virus will prise us from our cars.”

Now, anyone familiar with stopping a leviathan – like a Yank Tank American automobile – will understand inertia.

Nothing has more inertia than the 50 proud states of the American Union.

Each wildly different, but inevitably all as one marching forward beneath a flag, which cries out there is no one bigger than all of us.

Except a virus.

So, as New Zealand dutifully slipped into lockdown, the political machinations continued state-side, and then people began dying.

Tens of thousands were dying, including two people in the street I’m staying on, with a daily toll in the media.

It was bleak, desperate and scary.

But still it took weeks for the message to fully engage.

The nation that invented modern media and messaging and EVERYTHING, frustratingly couldn’t deliver a concise line about how to bust this bloody virus.

From the very beginning I had decided to follow what you were all doing in Aotearoa.

The Kiwi advice felt worth following.

So I stayed home.

The people I’m staying with became my bubble and we dug in for the long haul.

And here we are still, riding it out.

No one in my bubble has yet been sick.

The latest mandate here in California is the forcing of all citizens to wear a mask in public places, particularly while shopping.

It can be a scarf, a proper PPE-type mask or any flimsy covering the wearer may see fit.

The result is a feeling of security.

In having at least tried.

That this action might just save you.

Even if the World Health Organisation didn’t recommend this, although it has since capitulated.

And so today on the streets of the brave and the free, the individualistic American covers his or her face with a piece of cloth, and steps forward, dutifully observing the correct social distance from their fellow masked country folk, ever advancing towards the self-service checkout, with their essential supplies, including every kind of whipped cream sundae and Barbie in the new-season Covid Green ready again, to lead the free world, to wherever that may be.

Steve Wilde is a former Queenstown journalist, driving around the world in a 1978 GMC Motorhome. He’s been stranded in Palm Springs since the beginning of the pandemic.