After two months holed up in our tiny Manhattan apartment, my fiancé and I decided to rent a car and skip town for a remote corner of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. What we found was a different world where sweet normalities have been preserved — or returned.

Never before have I felt like such a Yankee on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Dare County, where part of Outer Banks are located, has only two active COVID-19 cases. The statewide stay-home order was lifted Friday, and businesses including hair salons and restaurants, were allowed to open at half capacity.

When we dined out Friday (for the first time since March 13), our waitress said we were the only customers to wear masks all night. And we walked in five minutes before closing time. 

I saw the side-eyes from the other diners, and when staff asked where we were from, I impulsively blurted out: “Ohio!” — my home state where I haven’t lived since 2017. Just three months ago, I’d have been proud to tell the truth that I’m a New Yorker. 

Some of the behavior at the Sunset Grille seafood restaurant, which was allowed to open at 50 percent capacity on Friday, would cause a multi-unit police response in New York City.

“3, 2, 1, COVID-19!” a man yelled as he snapped a photo for a large group, their arms wrapped around each other as they crowded around the bar along with at least a dozen others. 

While some patrons didn’t seem to be practicing pandemic protocols, the restaurant appeared to.

Sara Dorn
Sara Dorn

We sat outside on a massive wooden deck and the nearest table was more than 20 feet away. The silverware was wrapped in plastic. Our server only once came to our table without her mask, what she said was an accident before nervously pulling one out of her apron. When we left, ketchup bottles marked “sanitized” were set aside and the smell of bleach hit our nostrils.

At grocery stores and gas stations, store clerks go bare-faced behind plexiglass. A sign outside Walmart said only that masks were recommended — a far cry from the intimidating warnings posted on the doors of Manhattan grocery stores.

Outdoor patio at a restaurant in the Outer Banks of North Carolina
Sara Dorn.

Groups of teens gather on the beach and families congregate outside of ice cream parlors. 

The scenes are refreshing, but also unsettling. 

Was this trip safe? That I don’t know, but I can tell you that the coronavirus turns normal vacation mishaps into awkward and possibly dangerous human interactions. 

We had to rely on a sheriff’s deputy and Good Samaritan to pull our SUV out of the sand, and our Airbnb owner let us borrow her 4WD vehicle. None of them wore masks as they leaned in our windows or helpfully hopped in the driver’s seat. I felt a bit strange wearing mine while they went bare-faced — like I was suggesting they were untrustworthy.

Now I really need a casserole dish, and the neighbor’s house is a lot closer than the nearest store. 

Do we really know which one is “safer” anyway?