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This is another comic in xkcd's series of comics about the COVID-19 pandemic. Megan and Cueball are having a conversation about life before the pandemic, which was declared as such on the 11th of March, 2020 by the World Health Organization. They talk about what they miss about life before the pandemic, but Cueball says that he can barely remember it. This is borne out by the rest of their discussion: None of the activities they list were ever common and most are strange, and various items are misconstrued as existing for pandemic mitigation purposes.
After they finish reminiscing, Megan says that she can't wait for a vaccine, further implying that she she can't wait to have all of these things "back." Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are making vaccines, with Pfizer/BioNTech making their application for emergency use on November 20th, 2020, 7 days before this comic's release. It is expected to be approved for use by the end of the year.
Scuba diving without a mask
Scuba stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. It consists of a tank of compressed air, which is conducted through a tube to a mask which allows the diver to breathe underwater. The mask is a fundamental part of scuba diving. Cloth masks, to help lower the spread of the virus between people, are a recommended precaution when in public, but wearers are advised not to wear them when swimming. Megan is conflating these two different types of masks, misremembering a world where scuba diving did not have masks involved. You do not need to wear a cloth mask if you are scuba diving, but you do need to wear a scuba mask–irrespective of whether there is a pandemic.
Scuba masks previously rated quite well on the mask effectiveness scale in 2367: Masks.
Free refills at gas stations
Gas stations are locations where you can buy gasoline, which powers internal combustion engines, especially those in cars. A "free refill," in this context, likely refers to getting the gas tank of your car filled for free, which was not a business practice that was ever common. However, many gas stations also have a small convenience shop that accompanies them, where you can buy food, drinks, and can use the restroom. "Free refills" could refer to getting a free refill of a type of soft drink, which may happen in gas stations, but is mostly associated with restaurants and diners who allow free top-ups of inexpensive soft drinks (or tea/coffee), as a possible loss-leader, for those that potentially will pay more for a substantive meal. The hospitality sector has been curtailed to various degrees, depending on local responses to the pandemic, and it's possible no outlets that offered free top-ups can continue to do so, or even operate an eat-in service at all. While gasoline stations don't offer gas refills to cars, there are quite a number of locations offering free "refills" for electric vehicles. Electric vehicles were considerably less common before the pandemic, thanks also to generous incentive schemes in many countries. This might explain why the characters have a ghost memory of "free gasoline refills".
Grilling in the library
Grilling food generally poses a significant fire hazard (and can produce toxic carbon monoxide) and is thus typically not allowed indoors, especially in libraries. In the pandemic, many libraries discourage people from spending time there, preferring that visitors only check out or drop off books. Some libraries have even removed chairs to achieve this. Randall might be making a wordplay on "chilling".
Tennis without a "safety" net
Tennis is a sport where two players use racquets to hit a ball at each other. The game is played on a court divided in half by a low net. The net is not used for anyone's safety; it's to ensure that the ball must be volleyed to the other player with some minimum height. Megan seems to believe that the net is there to ensure that the players stay on opposite sides of the net, in order to lower the spread of the virus.
Many indoor activities were moved outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, as poorly-ventilated indoor spaces vastly increase the chance of the virus spreading. Fireworks are explosives shot into the air for entertainment. Most fireworks are not suitable for use indoors; setting them off indoors is even more dangerous than they already are, even before the pandemic. However, there are specially designed indoor fireworks, most often used by specially trained and licensed pyrotechnicians. This may also be a reference to "Indoor Fireworks", a song by Elvis Costello from his 1986 album King of America, which uses fireworks as a metaphor for a tumultuous romantic relationship.
Arcade claw machines
Arcade claw machines have a bin of prizes (often stuffed animals) with a claw mechanism hanging overhead. The player pays a few coins into the machine and maneuvers the claw over a desired prize. The claw will descend and "attempt" to grab the prize for retrieval, but to ensure a favorable revenue for the machine operator, there is often a hidden percentage chance that the claw will not fully close. This is a frustrating experience for the player (e.g. Cueball). Remote manipulator arms are also used for handling dangerous items, but the arcade claw machine was not implemented for the purpose of safety.
Title text: Riding a horse through the mall
A mall, in a historical context, refers to a large open walkway, such as the National Mall, where one could conceivably enter with a horse, although it was considered inappropriate to do so. However, it appears Cueball and Megan are referring to a shopping mall, where a shopper entering with a horse was never a regular occurrence, at least in universes where there isn’t a horse in aisle five.
|| This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.
- [Megan and Cueball are having a conversation]
- Megan: What do you miss most about life before the Pandemic?
- Cueball: I can barely remember it.
- Megan: I miss going scuba diving without having to wear a mask.
- Cueball: I miss free refills at gas stations.
- Megan: I miss grilling in the Library.
- [Close-up on Megan, Cueball's voice comes from off-panel, to the right.]
- Megan: I miss when tennis players didn't have to have that safety net between them.
- Cueball: I miss indoor fireworks.
- [Return to seeing them both, they are now walking to the right while talking]
- Megan: I miss when arcades let you take toys from the bin with your hand instead of using that stupid claw.
- Cueball: Ugh, I hate that thing.
- Megan: I can't wait for a vaccine.
Don't be a jerk.
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