”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity ...” — Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

The opening line of Charles Dickens’ 160-year-old novel eerily reflects America’s divided response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a nation, we are split between believing that masks and social distancing can help prevent death and believing that coronavirus is a hoax. Half of us believe science offers wisdom, half of us believe science is foolishness. Reality itself seems split in two.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”

The opening line of chapter three in “A Tale of Two Cities” is a universal truth. Each of us forever will remain a deep psychological mystery to everyone else. People on either side of every social controversy have trouble understanding the beliefs and thought processes of folks with whom they disagree.

In the best of times, solutions flow from compromise, from individuals making an effort to listen to their neighbors and trying to empathize.

Most of us — consumers and entrepreneurs alike — agree that 2020 is not the best of times.

Nearly a million and a half people around the world so far have died of coronavirus, including more than a quarter million Americans. Several national retail chains have declared bankruptcy. Millions of Americans are out of work. Thousands of business owners have lost their livelihoods, and thousands more are teetering on the edge. The populace is wildly divided in attitude, political allegiance and economic stability.

Compromise and understanding seem to be at an all-time low. Americans continue to argue — loudly and with great emotion — about how to proceed.

Personal choices define our individual day-to-day lives; societal choices are shaping our collective future.

Anyone who owns or works for a service, retail or manufacturing business — a group that, loosely defined, includes basically every non-retired adult — yearns for good news: hints that the economy will get back on track, that the job market will improve, that workers will be able to earn money so they can purchase merchandise and services and thereby keep our economic machine humming.

Retailers and manufacturers were hopeful the annual shopping spree known as Black Friday would help them claw back some semblance of a 2020 bottom line. The result was mixed.

Black Friday online sales hit a new record as consumers spent an estimated $9 billion on U.S. retail websites, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks online shopping. That was a 22 percent jump over the previous record of $7.4 billion set in 2019. But traffic to physical stores plummeted by more than 50 percent, according to Sensormatic Solutions, a retail tracker.

Consumers are leaning toward online shopping as a strategy to avoid exposure to infection. That’s hurting brick-and-mortar stores. It has put a dent in oil company profits. It has boosted the bottom line of delivery companies.

The pandemic has been a boon to Amazon. All year, shoppers concerned about infection decided to click on their devices instead of venturing into stores. Smaller retailers, including many in northern Michigan, have expanded online services and are capturing income from shoppers leery of in-store visits. Such measures should help local businesses stabilize sales through winter and into spring.

I suspect the Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping spree shifted away from the usual luxuries toward essential purchases as consumers brace for lingering pandemic effects. It’s hard to think about jewelry and custom car accessories when you’re having trouble paying for toilet paper and ramen noodles.

Americans live today in two separate “cities” on many levels: employed or unemployed, rich or poor, masked or unmasked, rural or metropolitan, Republican or Democrat, Picard or Kirk, surf or turf, yin or yang.

Perhaps 2021 will see our tale of two cities swerve back toward the saga of a unified nation where we can live together in something resembling harmony.

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