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The other day I found something in my basement, something I knew was there but had been misplaced. It was in a box of stuff destined for my weekly trash pickup but which itself had been pushed aside and forgotten.

There, still in its original package and unused, was an N95 face mask left over from a long-forgotten attempt at a home improvement project.

Now a valuable commodity, I put it back in the box. I didn’t want it, although I didn’t know why.

Nearly a week later, I understand now.

It began with school shootings and stories about child abductions. Then we had the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and more school shootings. Now we have COVID-19 and what could be the final domino to fall in the closing off of American society.

Remember when we were a free and open people? A sociable one? The days before schools were on permanent lockdown, when parents were welcomed instead of feared as potential criminal suspects?

At one time we could walk into government buildings without having to pass through metal detectors, show ID and explain why we were there. Public spaces that once were accessible are now fenced off.

It seems we’re heading in the same direction now when we go to the grocery store to buy milk and bread.

Going to the store once was a pleasant event. You could take your time and browse. You might run into a friend and chat for a while.

Now? You might encounter a bouncer at the door whose job it is to restrict the number of people inside. Floors are marked with arrows and reminders to keep your distance from other customers. Cashiers are behind deflector shields and are probably wearing masks.

In other words, be careful. Anyone you meet could kill you. Stay away from them.

The America I grew up in, and the one I want my grandchildren to experience, was a free and open place where people could mingle. You never knew who you would sit beside at a ball game (remember those?). Young and old, rich and poor, ambitious and carefree — we truly were all in this together.

That phrase is a bitter reminder now of what we’ve lost. Arrows on grocery store floors, sneeze guards and reminders to stay 6 feet apart separate us now. Don’t mingle. Don’t browse. Get in and get out.

Two days ago, the editorial boards of The Herald-Dispatch and the Charleston Gazette-Mail had an online meeting with E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University. Among other things, he talked about measures that could be taken this fall when, he hopes, students return to campus. They could be asked to sit in a checkerboard pattern in class. Class sizes will be smaller. Everyone — instructors and students — could be required to wear masks, which the school will provide.

Distancing — social and otherwise — will be the norm.

If conspiracy theorists are correct and the People’s Republic of China really did want to see what would happen if it allowed its virus to spread to the western world, it must be happy with the result. Our open society has turned into a closed and fearful one where everyone keeps to their own small group.

Will these restrictions ease before the end of summer? I hope so. Will we return to our old ways soon? Based on the events mentioned above, it’s doubtful. Once people taste power and control, they are reluctant to yield it. The screw may turn slowly, but it turns.

Jim Ross is development and opinion editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is jross@hdmediallc.com.

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