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Dr. Sultan’s column: Past fear, masks and back to an Island tradition

How do we stay connected to each other?

The fear of contracting COVID-19 is changing our basic social interactions on the Island. Now, with most people wearing masks, another level of social distance exists. Facial expressions, which are important to our day-to-day connections with others, are hidden.

We have to find ways to connect with others in the world of masks. Could Shelter Island’s old tradition of waving at strangers be the answer?

Yesterday, I tried to hold the door for an older gentleman at STARs Café, who was patiently waiting outside. Rather than being greeted with a “thank you,” and gracefully switching places for him to enter, we shared an uncomfortable pause as he stood in place.

The door closed behind me and I continued down the stairs to the sidewalk. Despite us both wearing masks, his fear of infection pushed him to keep his distance.

More importantly, our covered faces prevented us from using non-verbal communication, such as a smile, to navigate the simple social interaction of trading places to enter the café.

I left that encounter feeling empty.

Moments later, I saw a barefoot young man with a set of jumper cables looking confused as he paced between his car and a jeep behind him. Rather than stop to ask if everything was O.K., or offer to assist him, I thought it better not to disturb him. The culture of fear made me concerned that if I offered to help, he might react poorly.

As I reflect on these experiences, I feel upset and alone. I understand that people are scared of getting sick. I understand that, ideally, even while wearing masks or outdoors, we should all maintain a distance. Yet, I don’t like this feeling of social isolation. It weighs on me.

All of us are having fewer real life social connections. Some have been replaced through Zoom and Facetime. But that isn’t enough. I’ve been wondering how we can feel even a little closer again.

As I asked myself this question, it occurred to me that Shelter Island will be different this summer. Many second homeowners will be working from home into the fall, rather than coming out on weekends.

Fewer people are renting their houses out and many of the tourist establishments are closed. For the first time in decades, the Island will have a consistent community all summer.

I think this is a special opportunity for us to connect with one another, even if only from a distance.

O.K., how do we connect?

As a small town, Shelter island has a history of people being friendly to others, even if they don’t know them. Growing up as a summer kid in the 1980s, I recall people nodding to each other on the street. I remember people waving, as their cars passed one another.

So I’ve decided to bring that. For the past three weeks, I’ve waved, nodded, or given a thumbs-up to everyone I passed. I do it when I’m out for a casual walk, run, or bike ride. I even do it when I’m in town or at the store.

So far, the results have been great. Some people react awkwardly when I wave at them from a distance, but most wave back. I’ve also gotten thumbs-up, nods and a wink. Now I have a few “distance friends” that I run into regularly.

As the Island swells to a near-summer population, I encourage all year-rounders, snow birds, part-timers, and summer people to do the same. Let’s come together and support one another. We are all still in this together.

Dr. Ryan Sultan is a board-certified adult and pediatric psychiatrist, and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. His family has been on Shelter Island for over 60 years.