The timer on my phone runs down from the allotted 10 minutes as I busy myself. I find it’s easier to set it and go about some other business, as opposed to staring at the test as it slowly soaks up the litmus paper. Despite the high demand for rapid tests, I was able to find some quite easily. I happen to live near a small town that has been particularly vocal about public health mandates concerning COVID-19, posts religious displays on public property and cheers for someone they absolutely adore named “Brandon.” The restaurant beside the drug store I went to has a county militia gathering once a month.

The shelves of rapid tests were full. Go figure.

We’re all familiar by now with the procedure and once-novel experience of a home COVID-19 test. It’s as normal as flossing now, and I confess, happens about as often. My phone starts to screech as the timer hits zero and I go to see that the little red “positive” line glaring back accusingly.

It turns out that the hangover that lasted longer than it should have wasn’t a hangover at all.

Two years. Two years of dodging this shit, and it got me. I had plenty of opportunity to catch it before. I work at a dive bar. In a career that involves working with the intoxicated public, it’s only a matter of time. But I wear masks, I’m naturally standoffish and, aside from work, I don’t get near crowds. My customer base is also largely self-contained and mostly cautious. But we’ve all had scares. We’ve all seen outbreaks where six friends, a customer you served last week, a coworker, or a family member sends those not-so-vague texts reminiscent of college: “Hey, you ought to get tested.”

Now it’s my turn to contact every single person I’ve spent time with since the day before my symptoms showed up.

We all know about Omicron and about how fast it’s spreading. It seems inevitable that everyone is bound to catch it. Multiple establishments have taken a break since the holidays, citing repairs and staff shortages. It’s natural; it’s slow. January is the time of rebirth, resolutions and a particular recidivist virus.

What is lacking this time around is the alarm of the past year and that, in itself, is alarming. Are we accepting this now? Is this just a, “Tough break kid, don’t fuck up the economy” situation? What happens to these front-line workers, virtually all of whom are paid hourly with no benefits, when they catch COVID and are forced to take time off with no safety net?

“Here’s a 5-day vacation, whether you want it or not. Good luck paying that gas bill.”

During the initial shutdown that resulted in hard-won benefits for frontline service workers, a prominent restaurant owner accused workers of wanting to “get high and play Xbox” on Facebook. No, we were trying to figure out how to navigate finances in a very uncertain time without getting sick. Now, rumors abound of infected workers being threatened or fired if they don’t come to work at some establishments. The utter disconnect that we see now is infuriating, precisely because that disconnect exists. This is “normal” now.

Don’t expect another shutdown.

We’re finding out that acceptable casualties do exist, and just like a battle, the price is being paid by the ones who are on the frontlines. The small businesses who can’t take hit after hit, the employees who are forced to choose work while sick and contagious, and the customer base made up of people in similar straits is a disaster already in progress. We’re seeing the apathy of the elite in real-time. People are falling through the place where the safety net should have been.

As I contact colleagues, bosses, family and friends, I try to assess the responsibilities that I must abandon for the next week. That means sorting caretaking duties for immunocompromised family members, work coverage, bill coverage, insurance (if you even have it, most servers do not), food for the next five days, missed appointments, and yes, whether I can even afford it. I guess I’ll have to. Imagine every frontline worker having to do that when they, inevitably, get what’s going around. Imagine everyone they meet having to do the same.

What if they can’t?

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