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Smiles are my primary currency in life.  I smile at everyone.  It helps me read the person or understand a room full of people.  

The COVID-19 requirement to wear masks has taken away this simple pleasure.  I miss the smiles most.  I’m also big on handshakes.  The uncertainty of whether to recognize someone with a fist bump, elbow rub, head nod, or some other low-contact gesture complicates encounters.  (For the record, I prefer fist bumps.) The Japanese are ahead of us on this one by hundreds of years.  A simple bow suddenly feels like a gracious greeting for every occasion.

Body language has always been a subtle way to communicate.  It has suddenly become more important.  I find myself focusing on the other person’s eyes.  Eyes can expose acknowledgment, love, hate, anger, or disinterest.  Connecting eye response with other body movements such as proximity, arms and hands, and overall body tension gives one a pretty good idea of the nature of the encounter.  

I suspect society is slowly creating a new non-verbal language based upon the absence of a smile.  The only way to keep up is to get outside and look around once in a while.

While I have seen the slogan, “Stay at home, save lives,” I disagree with the concept.  COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon.  We need to learn how to live in this new pandemic world.  

The success of the small businesses that are the engine of our economy depends on our engagement.  Many have adapted to curbside, home delivery, or other creative ways to serve the public and survive as an entity.  It is easier for some than for others.  

I wander around quite a bit looking for things to write about.  These days, I see shops with few customers, restaurants with a few tables spaced apart and even fewer diners, and shuttered storefronts representing shattered dreams.   

To be clear, I am very careful during my walkabouts.  I’m in that “senior citizen high risk group,” and rather fond of staying alive as long as possible.  That being said, life isn’t worth much unless you get out and enjoy it.  I always have a mask, maintain a social distance that exceeds the guidelines, avoid the occasional crowd I might encounter, and generally stay home during what I consider the busiest times to shop.

While walkabouts may appear frivolous, they are important to the future of our local economy. Entrepreneurs took the risk to rent a storefront, provide jobs for our friends and neighbors, pay taxes, add to property values, and support local school teams and not for profits. Their success depends on residents getting out and patronizing them.

There is much we don’t understand about COVID-19.  The only thing about which I am certain is that we will have to live with it for quite a while.  I suggest the best path is a cautious return to as normal as possible as we re-define the new normal.  We need to support our business community.  We need to shop locally. Those of us fortunate enough to enjoy stable economic circumstances during the pandemic should stop ordering stuff from billionaires’ online stores and start spending that money in Prince William County. 

This, too, shall pass.  In the meantime, if we don’t patronize our local businesses, particularly small businesses, Prince William might look like a scene out of an episode of the “Twilight Zone” after the pandemic passes.  That won’t be something to smile about.   

Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week.  You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.

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