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Column: Coronavirus gloves are the new litter. Who is supposed to pick them up?

A disposable glove on the ground
Clockwise from upper left: A discarded mask rests among flowers outside of a grocery store in Gardena; a protective glove worn floats in Newport Harbor; a discarded glove sits along a road in La Crescenta; and a discarded glove on the ground on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles.
(Kent Nishimura; Allen J. Schaben; Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Gloves.

We need to talk about those blue, black and white disposable gloves now littering our streets, our sidewalks, our green spaces and our supermarket parking lots.

Used gloves. Soiled gloves. Potentially infected gloves.

Gloves in critically short supply that people desperate to stave off the coronavirus took the trouble to hunt down and purchase and awkwardly wriggle their fingers into — but then tossed out, not caring who might have to come behind and pick them up and potentially put themselves at risk by doing so.

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Every time I go on a walk, I now have to step over gloves. I’ve seen them sitting in abandoned carts outside my supermarket. I’ve seen them thrown on people’s lawns. They can look oddly alive. Their fingers sometimes seem to point this way and that.

A British photographer already has begun to document them as an art project to convey the time we are living in. But sidestepping them in real life has an ick factor akin to encountering a used condom or hypodermic needle.

A discarded nitrile glove mimicking the Hawaiian "shaka" is seen left on the street in Hollywood.
A discarded nitrile glove mimicking the Hawaiian “shaka” is seen left on the street in Hollywood.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

The tossed gloves are all over L.A., I’m told. But not just all over L.A. All over the country, all over the world. Just search social media and news reports. And it isn’t just gloves. It’s also masks. Though more gloves than masks. So many gloves.

So many gloves have been tossed out on residential streets that I can’t help but wonder how many ordinary people stockpiled them — even while hearing reports that doctors and nurses needed them, needed them not to go to the supermarket or to accept a takeout delivery without squirming but to stay safe and protected while treating patients with the virus. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that experts keep warning us ordinary Joes that wearing the gloves may do us more harm than good.)

In earlier eras, a dropped glove might mean time to duel (as in throw down the gauntlet) or flirt (when delicately slipping through the fingers of an Elizabethan lady).

A colleague of mine, when I brought up the gloves, mentioned a social media account that predates the pandemic called “Lost Gloves for Lost People” that tracks dropped winter gloves, with the idea that “where you see a lost glove, you find a cold hand.”

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I keep thinking about what today’s dropped gloves, which I often see fewer than 10 steps from trash bins, signal about us right now.

Why does social distancing in the coronavirus pandemic still meet resistance when we know it can flatten the curve, reduce deaths and save our lives and the lives of others?

To me, they are emblematic of a certain still not uncommon self-centeredness. I’ll take care of me. I’ll try to keep myself safe. But that’s it. I won’t worry about you. You’re not my problem.

It’s the same attitude I’ve seen and noted from some about social distancing and wearing masks. I’ll block the center of the supermarket aisle. I’ll stake out the middle of the sidewalk. I’ll run right past you without warning. I won’t wear a mask. I won’t move out of your way. I won’t protect you from me. That’s entirely up to you.

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It’s an attitude of people accustomed to other people — the house cleaner, the staff, janitorial crews — doing for them. Perhaps they’re struggling to adjust to this new reality when we all should be doing for ourselves and each other.

It’s an attitude that says screw you — as those people do who walk their dogs off leash and refuse to pick up after them.

It’s an attitude that screams: The rules that apply to the rest of society don’t apply to me.

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It’s an attitude I see just about every day when I watch the president give his briefings.

No, the president won’t wear a mask: “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it.” No, the president’s not going to stand six feet away. Just watch his hulking presence right next to the person speaking at the podium, he’s not.

Attitude, though, is one thing. I have other, perhaps more lasting, worries.

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When it comes to pollution, right now I fear we’re going two ways at once. We’re mostly staying home, not driving our cars. And we’re celebrating our empty streets, our cleaner air, the wondrous reemergence of wild animals who usually hide from our hordes.

But we’re also making use of so many non-biodegradable items, like these nitrile and latex gloves and disposal masks, which often contain plastics and metal.

Citing safety, our grocery stores have stopped letting us bring our own bags — which only recently we were required to do unless we wanted to pay for theirs. Now we’re toting home paper and plastic bags that many of us probably are throwing straight out — rather than reusing or recycling — afraid of who touched them before us. And ditto for takeout containers.

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When I see gloves dropped in our streets, as I do every day now, I think of them making their way into our storm drains and then possibly into the ocean. I think of them swirling by the thousands out there in trash vortexes along with our once-again profligate plastic bags, long after this pandemic has come and gone.

If you feel the need to wear the gloves, I understand. We all are trying to stay safe.

But if you’re wearing them, do us all a favor. Take them off and dispose of them safely. Do it to show that you care about more than just yourself. Do it to protect others.

Do it to help make these days fade into memory, not haunt us permanently.


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