Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Pizza-Paved Path to the Far Side of the Covid Pandemic

I can rage about the number of Americans who refuse to get Covid vaccines and who, as a result, have prevented this country’s vaccination rate from rising to the level where people are as safe as possible and the economy less encumbered. And I’ve raged, believe me.

I can get depressed about the situation. I’ve done that, too.

Or I can get a pizza. That’s my strategy going forward.

Pizzeria Mercato, a much-loved Italian restaurant just five miles from my house in Chapel Hill, N.C., requires not only that all of its employees be vaccinated but also that any customer who wants to dine inside provide proof of vaccination. No jab, no grub (at least not at a table). That’s the deal, one that trumpets the importance of vaccines and provides a vaccination incentive to boot.

I love that. I want to support it. And I wonder: What if more restaurants did likewise? (Some do, including Danny Meyer’s, but not enough of them.) And more hotels and sports, fitness and entertainment venues? (Ditto.) And airlines? (Qantas, Australia’s largest airline, just announced such a policy.)

What if the willfully, proudly, stubbornly unvaccinated — people who have access to shots and no rational medical exemption but still won’t get them — were ever more frustrated as they sought their pleasures and ever more inconvenienced as they ran their errands? Would that wear down the resistance of at least a few of them? Isn’t it worth trying?

My impulse isn’t punitive. It’s practical. The new vaccination mandates that President Biden announced last week — a warranted measure, in my opinion, that he took in response to dire circumstances — won’t cover tens of millions of Americans, and it needs to be part of a broader, more coordinated campaign to lead, nudge and, yes, shove Americans toward sanity. That would help make the effort bigger than one man and one political party, for whatever that’s worth in these madly partisan times.

But even leaving that aside, requiring that customers be vaccinated is a way for businesses to better protect the workers who come in contact with those customers. It additionally allows business owners to communicate their values and take a stand.

It grants customers the same opportunity. Where to nosh: the eatery that barely enforces whatever local mask mandate may exist or the one that demands a jab? Disregard who has the tastier tostada. Choose the more principled citizen (and the safer place). Then pick the airline that requires that its employees be vaccinated.

Pizzeria Mercato was closed for all but curbside takeout for more than a year of the pandemic. In early August, shortly after its dining room reopened, its owner, Gabe Barker, announced that diners would have to provide proof of vaccination before being shown to their seats.

His decision was informed by data about the efficacy of vaccines and by conversations with his wife, a registered nurse who works at the University of North Carolina Medical Center, where, he told me, an overwhelming majority of people hospitalized for Covid-related reasons are unvaccinated.

“I’m not telling people how to make their own decisions about what to do with their bodies, and I’m not here to politicize a global health crisis,” he said. He’s just doing what “allows me to come to work every day and mitigate risk,” he added.

He also wants to try, however he can, to lessen the burden on health care workers. On top of being physically drained, they’re “mentally defeated,” he said. “They believe that this round of Covid was avoidable.”

After word of his policy got out, he and his restaurant confronted some vicious posts on social media and the restaurant’s phone lines were jammed with nasty calls. “There was a lot of inconsiderate commentary that my decision was relatable to policies in Nazi Germany,” he said. “My mother is Jewish.”

There was also, rightly, praise. Three weeks ago, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat, held a news conference at Pizzeria Mercato to thank Barker and praise his example.

Barker said that his bottom line hasn’t been hurt: Some people are making it a point to patronize Mercato.

It’s where my food tomorrow night will come from. Some neighbors are having me over for dinner on their deck and they’re getting takeout from Mercato. That delights me not just gastronomically but also ethically. It’s good eating in more ways than one.

For the Love of Sentences

I still use dictionaries, and a recent essay in The Times by Rachel del Valle illuminated why: “Wikipedia and Google answer questions with more questions, opening up pages of information you never asked for. But a dictionary builds on common knowledge, using simple words to explain more complex ones. Using one feels like prying open an oyster rather than falling down a rabbit hole.” (Thanks to Jean Sawyer of Normal, Ill., for nominating this.)

Also in The Times, here’s Mike Tanier on recent changes in the National Football League: “Last week, the league announced agreements with FOX Bet, BetMGM, PointsBet and WynnBET to join Caesar’s Entertainment, DraftKings and FanDuel as approved sports book operators for the 2021 season. Just about the only unapproved sports book left is the one Uncle Junior ran out of the back of his candy store in 1962.” (Luther Spoehr, Barrington, R.I.)

Here’s Anthony DePalma reviewing “The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade,” a new book by Benjamin Smith: “Smith spent nearly a decade panning for truth in the slurry of myth, paranoia and self-aggrandizement that surrounds the Mexican drug trade.” (Gordon Brown, Boulder, Colo.)

Here’s Janet Maslin reviewing “Harlem Shuffle,” by Colson Whitehead, and introducing one of its characters: “Then there’s Ray, who inevitably gets caught up in all of this. Ray runs Carney’s Furniture, but he’s OK with occasionally fencing jewelry on the side. He’s a liminal criminal.” (Linda La Paz, Brandon, Fla., and Eric Walker, Black Mountain, N.C.)

And here’s Dwight Garner reviewing “The Magician,” by Colm Toibin, about the life of the German writer Thomas Mann: “Mann had a monk-like devotion to work. He could be a remote father. A book about his relationships with his children might be titled ‘Mann’s Inhumanity to Manns’.” (Malcolm Cochran, Columbus, Ohio)

That’s a lot from The Times, but there’s a lot in The Times! The fewer nominations from other publications included The Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins’s remembrance of Sept. 11, 2001: “I had watched those buildings go up as a kid in the 1970s, when I was a public schooler with a wad of Bazooka and hard little vowels in my foul little mouth.” (Stuart MacMillan, Seattle, and Raeona Jordan, Baileys Harbor, Wis., among others)

Also, in an appraisal of new translations of Dante’s work in The New Yorker, Judith Thurman wrote that before Dante, “The notion of Purgatory was an empty lot waiting for a visionary developer.” (Sherman Hesselgrave, Vancouver, Wash.)

What I’m Reading (and Watching)

Over the past five years in particular, the historian and journalist Anne Applebaum has established herself as an essential chronicler of our times, and a recent article of hers in The Atlantic, “The New Puritans,” about hasty condemnation and social-media “justice,” illustrates why. Almost nobody is better than she is at pulling back from the churn of the moment and providing crucial context.

Also in The Atlantic, John Dickerson wrote a wise and beautiful tribute to his family’s wonderful dog, George, who died recently. My dog, Regan, and I were lucky enough to know George; back in Manhattan, we occasionally took walks with him and John’s wife, Anne, who also had Regan over for a play date with George on their terrace. (Anne and I monitored, sipping Aperol spritzes.) Afterward, whenever Regan and I passed the Dickersons’ building, she veered toward its front door. She couldn’t get enough of George.

This Wall Street Journal article about how many young American men are giving up on college is both fascinating and disturbing.

I appreciated not only the witty neologism — vaxenfreude — in this edition of the Politico Nightly newsletter, by Tyler Weyant, but also Weyant’s explanation of why the sentiment is ill advised.

In The Times’s The Morning newsletter last Friday, David Leonhardt resurfaced Colson Whitehead’s wondrous valentine to New York City, originally published by The Times two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. How did I miss it at the time? If my lapse is also yours, recover from it as I did and read Whitehead’s essay from the first word to the last. David’s reflection on the legacy of Sept. 11 is also worth your time.

The six-part Netflix series “The Chair,” about troubles in the English department at a fictional college that’s a crucible for cultural conflict, has an attribute that’s increasingly rare: It can’t be pigeonholed politically. Is it taking issue with the sensitivities and litmus tests of “woke” students and frightened school administrators? Or with the stodginess and entitlement of an older generation that paid inadequate heed to diversity? The answer is both, and there’s wisdom — and nuance — there. Sandra Oh and Nana Mensah are standouts in an excellent cast.

On a Personal Note

A friend and I talked the other evening about the big decisions that both of us had recently made — moving to new areas of the country, buying houses that needed work, figuring out how to furnish them, developing whole new daily routines — and we commiserated about all the second-guessing that comes with that:

Did I pay too much? Did I choose too rashly? Have I bungled the whole shebang?

She observed, wistfully, that she’d been spared that kind and magnitude of anxiety in the past, and she wondered what had happened to the swagger of her youth. There’s something about age, she said, that makes you tentative.

I see the situation differently. There’s something about age, I told her, that makes you more aware.

And that something is, well, age.

In your 50s (where she and I are) or 60s (which aren’t far around the corner for me), you know from actuarial tables and you feel in your bones that you have less time to recover from and redeem false steps. You have fewer opportunities for do-overs. You also understand, from experience, the wages of mistakes: how they can cling to you for years and even reverberate across decades. That lesson comes only from having been alive a good long while, and it’s not an easy one to shake.

A passage of Joan Didion’s frequently comes back to me. It’s from “Goodbye to All That,” the final essay in her “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” collection, and while she’s describing her early days in, and onetime romance with, New York City, her true subject is the exhilaration and then fading of youth. “I knew that it would cost something,” she writes of her heady time there, “but when you are 22 or 23, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance and be able to pay whatever it costs.”

“Nothing was irrevocable,” she adds, but a few pages — and five years — later, she changes her tune, realizing, after an accretion of years, that “some things are irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

That, I told my friend, is perhaps what had happened to the swagger of her youth. She had traded it for wisdom, which has considerably less fizz. Recklessness had yielded to wariness, fireworks to mood lighting. And there was as much gain as loss in that.

Neither she nor I had or has stopped taking chances. The very prompt for our conversation was the leaps we’d just taken, the changes to which we’d committed. Age doesn’t eliminate those: It just keeps your eyes wide open and your expectations in check.

If I erred in choosing the path I’m now on, I will pay a price, and I won’t recover the time and energy invested in my error. But time has taught me something else as well: There’s an even steeper tariff on indecision, which freezes you in place, so that you’re not on any path at all. In that situation, you’ve squandered more than time and energy. You’ve squandered feeling. You’ve surrendered the journey itself.

Have feedback? If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at [email protected]

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