Until last Thursday, I haven’t really been inside a big mall since the start of the year. After being struck by Covid twice this year, in January and March, I’ve been wary of crowded spaces. Somehow, I was afraid of getting the bug again from strangers. Fact is, I have no idea how I got it the second time around. So you can just imagine my hesitation.

So, where have I been going all this time? Aside from the office and the dialysis center, the only other places I went to were the mini mart and convenience store two blocks away from our house, the hospitals, the bank, and the drugstore at the corner from the office. All other things I needed I got online.

When a friend out of the blue asked how I was, she suggested we meet up for coffee or even dinner if I was up to it. I wanted to see people I haven’t seen in ages, so, I said yes. We agreed to meet at this little mall on Macapagal Avenue that seems deserted.

That place is perfect for you, she said. There’s almost no one there.

And she was right. Except for a supermarket and an athletic store, there are only a handful of restaurants there. And yes, a billiard hall and a digital gaming place. Otherwise, the mall was empty. It was the place for me.

The only problem is that it is quite out of the way, sandwiched between a huge mall at one end and a strip mall at the other. But beggars can’t be choosers.

When I got used to navigating that mall in the following weeks, I decided it was time to go to my old haunt, that mall in Ermita. There were supplies that I needed badly that I could get in one swoop on a single trip.

What surprised me when I got out of the vehicle was the number of people milling outside the mall’s entrance. It’s like the pandemic never happened. It was the same inside. People were in a rush, going from here to there, meeting up with friends, without regard to social distancing. I hoped they all had their booster shots. I just pulled out my spray bottle of isopropyl alcohol and disinfected my hands.

On my way up to the hardware on the third floor, I dropped by an apparel store to browse for clothes. I haven’t really bought myself something in the past year. The store wasn’t busy, and considering the weather — it was drizzling outside — most of the young ones were in short shorts and flip flops. Did I miss the memo? Was I at the beach?

The restaurant I went to wasn’t really crowded, but seeing other people in a close huddle, chatting as they had their dinner scared me. I took a table away from them, keeping my mask on until it was time to chow down. And when I was done, it was mask on at once.

The supermarket wasn’t full, the mall’s aisles were almost deserted. It was near closing time anyway.

The surprise was people were gathered at all the coffee places. All outlets that served coffee were packed to the brim. Coffee shops, donut stores. I swear you can’t hear a spoon if it dropped on the floor.

People were elbow to elbow, their masks off, chatting as if Covid doesn’t exist. You can just imagine my shock.

I was talking with the doctor at the center the other day, and she admitted the numbers are on the rise at the hospital where she works. Covid. Dengue. Leptospirosis. They expect to run out of beds in the next few weeks if the numbers don’t improve. It’s a scary thought that I hope doesn’t come to pass.

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