The Universal Notebook: What does it mean to be non-essential?

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As the worst of the pandemic quarantines and lockdowns begin to fade in the rearview mirror, millions of Americans must be asking themselves what it means that they were considered non-essential workers. 

The “essential worker” designation covered the nuts and bolts of society – health care, public safety, food and farmers, energy, water, public works, transportation, communication, manufacturing, financial services, and defense. 

What was considered non-essential were most of the things that make life worth living – education, entertainment, religion, travel, sports, art, music, libraries, restaurants. Of these, Americans seemed most ambivalent and anxious about schooling.

Closing schools or operating on a hybrid part-time model certainly inconvenienced kids and stressed adults for a few months, but it was temporary and necessary. Most teachers and schools adapted quickly and, while not ideal, remote schooling works in a pinch. It’s the parents who are most upset about school closings and not, I do believe, just because of the impact on student learning.

Now that schools are reopening and school sports are restarting, there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases among the young, especially on college campuses. Half the new cases in Maine are among people under 30, so this is not over by a long shot. The old folks have been vaccinated, the virus variants have arrived and we’ve dropped our guards, leaving the young unprotected and vulnerable. 

No wonder the new director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is concerned. (Note: Dr. Rochelle Walensky did not say we are doomed. She said she has a “recurring feeling” of “impending doom,” a fear that a fourth COVID-19 surge may occur if Americans stop taking necessary precautions.)

I really would like to have attended church on Easter Sunday, but my church is not yet open for in-person worship, and worshipping by Zoom does not appeal to me. In fact, I am not really interested in virtual anything and places where people gather are just now deciding whether to take the risk of opening to the public. 

The arts have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. No surprise there. The arts have always been considered non-essential by those in power. Nice to have but not necessary. That’s why a new Cultural Alliance of Maine is being formed to get artists a place at the table as pandemic aid is doled out. 

Museums, theaters, playhouses, and concert venues, not to mention artists, actors, and musicians, may ultimately want to reconsider their places in a lockdown economy. Heck, Maine even has a law that prohibits musicians from collecting unemployment.

I miss cultural events, but I’m afraid I’m not apt to go to a movie, play or concert any time soon. A restaurant maybe. But what I have missed most over the past year are libraries. 

I am a creature of the printed page. I love books, newspapers, and magazines. I have four library cards in my wallet. Before the pandemic, I stopped into Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library about twice a week and made research trips to Bowdoin College, Portland Public, and the University of Southern Maine as needed. Curtis and PPL librarians did some homework for me, but I wonder how many research projects have been put on hold.

I was a librarian in a former career. If I were a library director, I would be arguing that libraries are, at the very least, essential to research and should have remained open on a limited, as-needed basis. Libraries are also essential as repositories of culture and instruments of sanity. I can’t wait for them to reopen. It’s long overdue.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.