“What the hell is happening? I feel like we are living on another planet. I don’t recognize anyone anymore.”

by Sarah Smith

Kurt Thigpen clenched his hands around the edge of the table because if he couldn’t feel the sharp edges digging into his palms, he would have to think about how hard his heart was beating. He was grateful that his mask hid his expression. He hoped that no one could see him sweat.

A woman approached the lectern in the center aisle, a thick American flag scarf looped around her neck.

“Do you realize the mask, the CDC said it’s only 2% effective?” she demanded. “You’re failing our children, you’re failing our country, you’re failing our students’ future ….”

Thigpen fixed his eyes on a spot in the back of the blue-and-green auditorium. He let the person speaking at the lectern fade. It will be over soon, he told himself.

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A dark-haired woman in a red vest removed her face shield as she moved to take her turn at the mic. As she began to speak, the school board employee responsible for queuing up public commenters interrupted: “Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to please keep your shield on —”

No, you’re not the boss of me, you work for us, I can’t breathe with it on —”

“Ma’am —”

“Don’t you dare cut my microphone —”

The crowd cheered. Thigpen focused on his breathing.

It will end soon, he told himself. It must. His sweat turned cold under his suit.

“The science isn’t there, take the kids outta the masks and let’s move on.”

It was March 2021, Thigpen’s second month as a school board trustee in Washoe County, Nevada. He had planned his campaign around local issues like improving the district’s diversity and equity policies and fixing an intersection where 20 students had been injured in traffic.

Public comment periods at school board meetings felt endless. Parents’ angers — over masking, over politics, over the “LGBTQ agenda” — fed off each other.

“I came here to speak about your fascist propaganda and ideology …”

He concentrated on making it to the next break period. His thoughts had begun to turn toxic. Why am I not good enough? Why am I the one struggling? They would turn darker. I don’t want to be here anymore. If something happened to me today, that would be fine.

“We will work tirelessly to remove you if you don’t focus on what’s important ….”

When the eight-hour meeting finally ended, he would drive home and pull off the suit and rip off his shirt. He would only take care with his rainbow tie, resting it gently in the closet. It still hangs there today. He would close the door, lay down on his bed, and let himself cry.

The stories of cruel, seemingly irrational and sometimes-violent conflicts over coronavirus regulations have become lingering symptoms of the pandemic as it drags through its second year. Two men on a Mesa-to-Provo flight got into a cross-aisle fight after one refused to wear a mask. A Tennessee teenager asking his school board to impose a mask mandate in honor of his grandmother who died of COVID-19 got jeered by the crowd. A California parent angered by the requirement that his child wear a mask allegedly beat up a teacher so badly that the teacher had to go to the emergency room. An Arizona father showed up to an elementary school with zip ties, allegedly intending to make a “citizen’s arrest” over COVID-19 rules. A Missouri medical center has distributed panic buttons to about 400 employees after an increase in assaults on health care workers by people frustrated over coronavirus-induced visitation restrictions and long wait times.

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