New Yorkers like to think we live at the center of the universe, and, at least in terms of media, this pretty much remains true. Still, you have to get out of the city to appreciate the real life happening in the real America.
My recent travels have taken me from my longtime home of Brooklyn, N.Y., to two extreme tips of the continental United States: down to Key West, Fla., the southern-most point of the entire country, and, a few weeks later, up to top right corner of the U.S. map, in Maine along the coast in the bucolic resort town of Camden.
This triangulated view provides a peek at how America is recovering from the worst pandemic in over a hundred years — and, in some instances, failing to recover.
Paid Not to Work
In Brooklyn, the evidence is clear regarding the effects of abundant government benefits on job-hunting. At an elegant restaurant overlooking the East River from the Brooklyn enclave of Dumbo, the shortage of staff is so bad that it has been unable to open for weekend brunch for the summer.
The restaurant offered $18 an hour, then $21, then $23, plus a signing bonus of $1,500 for anyone who stays in the job for three months. Still not enough.
Extended unemployment benefits are one reason why. One friend of mine who just graduated from NYU has been getting $420 per week for over a year now — and he wasn’t even employed when COVID-19 struck.
The Pain in Maine
The shortage of staff is acute in parts of Maine, too. In Camden, “Now Hiring” signs beckon everywhere. At Mixed Greens on Main Street, the owner, a first-time entrepreneur, tells me about the months she spent having to pay rent for an empty storefront while waiting to open; even now, she keeps her shop closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because of a lack of help.
Waterfront, a popular dockside seafood spot, closes on Tuesdays for lack of staff. On my first and last nights there (June 28th and July 3rd), the restaurant turned away more than 20 parties hoping for a table.
At McLaughlin’s Lobster Shack in nearby Lincolnville Beach, a harried waitress, born and bred here like many of the people I spoke with, cited the lack of immigrants, owing to the pandemic and travel restrictions.
Big Tech and other U.S. giants argue we need more immigrants because of a supposed labor shortage, when, in fact, almost 40% of able-bodied people under age 65 in the U.S. are out of the work force are jobless and aren’t looking. Raise wages handsomely and more people will go back to work. The government’s COVID handouts undercut that effort.
Backlash Against the Mask
In Brooklyn, for more than a year, mask-wearing was mandatory to enter any business, eat in any restaurant, do most anything. Although New Yorkers are the most ornery people anywhere, close to 95% of us complied. That plummeted to 10% in a matter of weeks.
Now, store signs say masks are “preferred.” The virus crisis is over, let’s admit it.
Masks are an artifact and an afterthought down in the Keys in Florida, an anti-mask state whose residents shed all fear and reluctance many months ago. And lived to tell about it.
As I strolled amid lush foliage and seaside views of the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, it felt delightful to see smiling faces again.
The most liberal states had the strictest rules on masks (New York, New Jersey, California; see also the entire nation of Canada.) Florida, by contrast, is more conservative: 55 of its 67 counties voted for President Trump in 2020, granting him 51.2% of the statewide vote vs. Biden’s 47.9%.
Maine is a left-leaning state, especially in the coastal areas. Statewide, 53.1% of the vote went to Biden vs. 44% for Trump. Yet in Camden, masks are almost nowhere to be seen.
Signs at store entrances say you can enter sans mask if you are vaccinated, and nobody ever asks for any proof.
The only masks you see are worn by some of the waiters and waitresses in the many seafood restaurants that are doing a teeming business on Penobscot Bay. At their option, they tell me.
My bet is the tipping goes down when the masks go back on.
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