2391: Life Before the Pandemic

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Life Before the Pandemic
I can't wait until this is all over and I can go back to riding my horse through the mall.
Title text: I can't wait until this is all over and I can go back to riding my horse through the mall.


This comic is another in a series of comics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Megan and Cueball are having a conversation about life before the pandemic, which was declared as such on the 11th of March, 2020 by the World Health Organization. They talk about what they miss about life before the pandemic, but Cueball says that he can barely remember it. This is borne out by the rest of their discussion: None of the activities they list were ever common and most are strange, some are even forbidden and various items are misconstrued as existing for pandemic mitigation purposes.

After they finish reminiscing, Megan says that she can't wait for a vaccine, further implying that she can't wait to have all of these things "back." Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are making vaccines, with Pfizer/BioNTech making their application for emergency use on November 20th, 2020, 7 days before this comic's release. It is expected to be approved for use by the end of the year.

Scuba diving without a mask[edit]

Scuba stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. It consists of a tank of compressed air, which is conducted through a tube to a mouthpiece which allows the diver to breathe underwater. A mask is a fundamental part of scuba diving to allow the diver to see underwater better. Cloth masks, to help lower the spread of the virus between people, are a recommended precaution when in public, but wearers are advised not to wear them when swimming. Megan is conflating these two different types of masks, misremembering a world where scuba diving did not have masks involved. You do not need to wear a cloth mask if you are scuba diving, but you do need to wear a scuba mask–regardless of whether there is a pandemic.

Scuba masks previously rated quite well on the mask effectiveness scale in 2367: Masks. However because the regulator is technically not a face covering, Megan's Scuba club may be requiring full face or "hardhat" style diving equipment, which would justify her complaint.

Free refills at gas stations[edit]

Gas stations are locations where you can buy gasoline, which powers internal combustion engines, especially those in cars. Many of these locations have a small convenience store attached, where customers can purchase snacks or drinks while having their car filled up. It's unknown whether Randall/Ponytail meant "free refill" of gasoline or of drinks from the convenience store, but either way it was not a business practice that was common.[citation needed] Free refills of drinks are more associated with restaurants and diners, who allow free top-ups of relatively cheaper soft drinks, tea, or coffee, in the hopes that it will attract people to come in and buy more expensive meals to cover the cost.

Grilling in the library[edit]

Grilling food generally poses a significant fire hazard (and can produce toxic carbon monoxide) and is thus typically not allowed indoors, especially in libraries, whose shelves full of flammable paper books present both an increased fire hazard (as the fire could spread more quickly with plenty of fuel, and the shelves could potentially hamper efforts to evacuate the library if the fire made that necessary) and a liability (because if the books burned, they would be destroyed/unusable, and it would likely cost a lot of money to replace them). In the pandemic, many libraries discourage people from spending time there, preferring that visitors only check out or drop off books. Some libraries have even removed chairs to achieve this.

Even if grilling were allowed in Cueball's and Megan's library beforehand, it would not be allowed during the pandemic, as it would involve eating in an enclosed area, an activity specifically warned to increase the contagiousness of the virus. Backyard (or library) cookouts have been discouraged by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, because of this.

Tennis without a "safety" net[edit]

Tennis is a sport where two players use racquets to hit a ball at each other. The game is played on a court divided in half by a low net. The net is not used for anyone's safety; it's to ensure that the ball must be volleyed to the other player with some minimum height. Megan seems to believe that the net is there to ensure that the players stay on opposite sides of the net, in order to lower the spread of the virus.

Indoor fireworks[edit]

Many indoor activities were moved outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, as poorly-ventilated indoor spaces vastly increase the chance of the virus spreading. Fireworks are explosives shot into the air for entertainment. Due to inherently being explosive, fireworks can be dangerous, i.e. cause injuries or even death. Some countries (for instance, The Netherlands) have temporarily banned fireworks because of COVID-19, reasoning the fireworks-induced injuries would put additional stress on hospitals that are already nearing maximum (intensive care) capacity due to COVID cases. Most fireworks are not suitable for use indoors; setting them off indoors is even more dangerous than they already are, even before the pandemic.[citation needed] However, there are specially designed indoor fireworks, most often used by specially trained and licensed pyrotechnicians. These are usually seen in large indoor venues for concerts and sporting events, both of which have been curtailed due to the pandemic. In this case Cueball would be accurately lamenting his inability to enjoy indoor fireworks.

Arcade claw machines[edit]

Arcade claw machines have a bin of prizes (often stuffed animals) with a claw mechanism hanging overhead. The player pays a few coins into the machine and maneuvers the claw over a desired prize. The claw will descend and "attempt" to grab the prize for retrieval. There is often a hidden percentage chance that the claw will not fully close.

This is a frustrating experience for the player (e.g. Cueball), but he misunderstands the purpose of the claws. While manipulator arms are also used for handling dangerous items, the claws in these machines are not to reduce coronavirus spread. Instead, they make toy-grabbing deliberately inefficient so that people may play again and pay more money. If people could take toys freely from the bin with their hands, operators would lose money, as people could take multiple toys or avoid paying entirely. It is unlikely that they would allow this even after the pandemic.

Out of frustration, some players attempt to reach through the deposit hole in order to try to take one of the stuffed animals or other prizes without the use of the claw. Since multiple people would presumably have already touched the metal interior, this is an effective way to spread the contagion quickly, which makes it even more imperative to discontinue this practice. There are other dangers to doing this as well; one can get their arm stuck in the machine, and can even cause themselves serious damage.

Again it is possible that the arcade used a ticket or token system where one could cash out their winnings for self-selected items such as plush toys. As a COVID mitigation, the arcade may have found it necessary to make the plush toys only available via an enclosed claw style "skill" game.

Title text: Riding a horse through the mall[edit]

A mall, in a historical context, refers to a large open walkway, such as the National Mall, where one could conceivably enter with a horse, although it was considered inappropriate to do so. However, it appears Cueball and Megan are referring to a shopping mall, where a shopper entering with a horse was never a regular occurrence[citation needed], at least in universes where there isn’t a horse in aisle five.


[Megan and Cueball are having a conversation.]
Megan: What do you miss most about life before the pandemic?
Cueball: I can barely remember it.
Megan: I miss going scuba diving without having to wear a mask.
Cueball: I miss free refills at gas stations.
Megan: I miss grilling in the library.
[Close-up on Megan, Cueball's voice comes from off-panel, to the right.]
Megan: I miss when tennis players didn't have to have that safety net between them.
Cueball: I miss indoor fireworks.
[The frame returns to seeing them both, they are now walking to the right while talking.]
Megan: I miss when arcades let you take toys from the bin with your hand instead of using that stupid claw.
Cueball: Ugh, I hate that thing.
Megan: I can't wait for a vaccine.

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This reminds me of the Four Yorkshiremen from At last the 1948 show. Tell that to youngsters nwadays. Arachrah (talk) 15:06, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

Thank you for correctly identifying the origin of the sketch :) 13:09, 28 November 2020 (UTC)
...but tell that to the youth of today, and they wouldn't believe you! 13:44, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

It is actually not clear to which ongoing pandemic the comic is referring. Wikipedia [1] is listing 10 epidemics currently going on. The longest ongoing one is the HIV/AIDS pandemic since 1981. It is not unlikely that the majority of humans on earth has no recollection or barely remembers the time before 1981. -- 15:51, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

You are *techinally* correct. (The best kind of correct) But, only one pandemic has made people wear masks, moved indoor activities outdoors, is referred to as THE pandemic, we -as a society- are waiting on a vaccine for, and is currently the central topic of our discourse. Argis13 (talk) 15:59, 27 November 2020 (UTC)
The HIV/AIDS pandemic is making people wear condoms, which on some level could be compared to masks or safety nets. I believe there are some people to be found that miss the time before the 1980s restriction in their sex life.-- 16:07, 27 November 2020 (UTC)
according to wikipedias own definition ("An epidemic is the rapid spread of disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time."), i'd argue that HIV is not an epidemic, much less a pandemic, but a regular endemic disease by now. 18:19, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

Non native speaker, here. Should the mouse-over text be understood as riding a horse in a shopping mall? That would make sense as it is as absurd as the other activities mentioned in the strip. "Mall" can have also other meanings, but riding through the National Mall in Washington DC or the Mall in London doesn't seem outrageous as all.--Pere prlpz (talk) 16:01, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

You are correct, Randall means riding a horse through a shopping mall. Nitpicking (talk) 16:09, 27 November 2020 (UTC)
(Written but ECed by Nitpicking... But as I said a few things I liked, have it anyway.)
As a term, though over here in my country it's more often called a "Shopping Centre", I would indeed assume it's collection of stores with at least one entrance-doorway (and possibly all) leading into an indoor 'street' (one of several, perhaps with multiple levels, upper ones deployed as lining balconies to provide skylight/spotlight illumination from the shared roof).
The 'street' roadway would be designed to be pedestrian-only (or mobility scooters; but usually barring skaters, skateboarders, bicycles and all motor-vehicles except for dispensation or disobedience) and typically surfaced in polished stone slabs or ceramic tiles. Which might be one of the worst surfaces for an iron-shoed horse to try to walk on due to the low grip or friction (I think there are rubber horseshoes/overshoes available for mounts that might be ridden or led across hard surfaces like asphalt).
I'm happily reminded of the sequence in True Lies where the horse is used to chase the motorbike - partly, and apologetically, through the hallways of a posh hotel - and I presume they had to stick to carpeted areas (or lay down and secure ones of their own) rather than the bare marble mall-like flooring for the more dynamic bits of stunt-riding involved in that.
So, yes, a horse in a (shopping) mall would be dangerous to the shoppers, dangerous to the horse/rider and even if no iniury occured, horses being biogical it's a fair bet that the previously immaculate floors might need cleaning even if they don't need repairing. ;) 16:35, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

Could "riding a horse in the mall" be a reference to the John Mulaney skit "there's a horse loose in the hospital"? 16:50, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

I'm detecting just a tiny bit of sarcasm in this comic. Elvenivle (talk) 17:52, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

I am detecting more than a tiny bit. Nutster (talk) 21:02, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

SCUBA divers, especially sport divers, usually breathe air through a mouthpiece that is separate from the mask . . . 18:23, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

Indeed. SCUBA divers almost always to wear a mask, but it's used to cover the eyes and provide an air space in front of them, allowing clearer vision underwater. (Some divers wear goggles instead of a mask.) Nitpicking (talk) 20:59, 27 November 2020 (UTC)
Divers can't wear goggles since there's no way to equalize the air space in front of the eyes. This would result in severe injuries to the eyes if you dive beyond a few meters. 14:14, 30 November 2020 (UTC)

SCUBA mask could be a reference to diving masks converted into hospital ventilators by a famous sporting good retailer (Decathlon)? https://www.isinnova.it/easy-covid19-eng/

Isn't there another XKCD comic that showed a one of the characters riding a horse? I seem to recall the title text of that one referred to riding in a shopping mall or other large enclosed space. Nutster (talk) 21:02, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

This is hilarious and wonderful.

Regarding grills in libraries (girls in libraries are fine), I'm reminded of the declaration that one is required to proclaim when applying for membership of the Bodleian Library in Oxford:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

Megan would definitely not be allowed in, for that reason, if not for others.

Also, I think the horse might be required to wear a mask, which might be a problem if you had a recalcitrant horse.

Given that it IS those two, Megan and Cueball, they could actually be people who DID those things. Cueball is absent minded enough to think that not being charged and chased at a gasstation is a free refil. Megan really WOULD ride a hose through the mall.

Ha! You have clearly failed to consider the electric grill. Check and mate, Bodleian Librarians of Oxford! You shall keep your oppressed patrons from delicious grilled snacks no longer. Q.E.D! 10:03, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

Indoor fireworks were a thing when I was young (and apparently still are), not needing any special expertise or training. 13:12, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

Yes, I thought the point of that reference was that they do still exist, and ostensibly the pandemic would stop you using them because of the recommendations against indoor activities, but in reality it's not the pandemic that stops most people buying them - it's the fact that they're really really crap. (I know a lot of people who have bought them once, but no-one who has bought them twice.) 16:38, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

Restaurant soda free-refills aren't a loss-leader. You paid $2 for that soda, the restaurant paid between 5 and 20 cents. The *cup* probably cost more than the *beverage* did. https://www.aol.com/2010/09/08/top-5-food-mark-ups-where-restaurants-make-huge-profits/ Draco18s (talk) 19:05, 29 November 2020 (UTC)

Could someone who is more competent than me please add "Correlation does not imply causation" from wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation) to the page? The whole comic is a perfect example of that principle. 22:26, 29 November 2020 (UTC)

It seems like you were thinking of something nonobvious. I don't know where that would go. Did you mean to comment on a different comic? 21:40, 1 December 2020 (UTC)

"Since multiple people would presumably have already touched the metal interior, this is an effective way to spread the contagion quickly." Except, that as our knowledge of the virus has increased the medical community now thinks that surface contact is anything but an "effective" way for COVID-19 to pass from person to person. There's other germs you can pass on/pick up from frequently touched surfaces but COVID-19 isn't one of them. 17:07, 2 December 2020 (UTC)

Here in Norway, free refills of coffee at gas stations IS pretty common. You have to buy a special cup, which gives you the right to free refills for the rest of the year.