It’s Going to Be an Awkward Summer
What will happen when people’s levels of Covid comfort don’t match up?
My wife and I were walking the dog the other day, unmasked, as we have almost every day since the pandemic started. As a couple came toward us on the sidewalk, we did what we have gotten used to doing over the past year — my wife and I moved a couple of feet off the sidewalk to give the other couple a little extra space while we walked past them.
As we passed, the lady said, in practiced Midwestern passive-aggressiveness, “Thanks, I guess, but there’s enough room on the sidewalk for all of us, you know.” Her message: you two are being over-cautious ninnies for stepping aside and giving people extra space. Your behavior is ridiculous and kind of annoying.
It was just a small incident — it ended there, we didn’t say anything in return — but it struck me as a sign of what’s to come over the next couple of months.
On one hand, the woman we passed was in many ways correct. My wife and I are fully vaccinated, and the couple we passed seemed old enough to have had the chance to be vaccinated if they wanted to be. We were outside, which meant that we probably wouldn’t have infected them even if we had somehow been contagious and had brushed shoulders with them. There was probably no need to give them extra space.
So why did we give the couple a wide berth? My wife and I stepped aside partially out of habit — this is just what we have been doing for a long time. Mostly, we did it because we were trying to be conscientious. It has seemed like a good practice to assume that the people around us were maximally cautious about the virus. We figure that we never know who might be very nervous about getting sick for whatever reason and might appreciate the extra space. We’d rather be overly cautious than freak somebody out.
This little moment of sidewalk awkwardness probably presages what we as a society will be living through over the next few months. The pandemic isn’t over, not by a long shot — as I write this, we are still clocking 50,000 cases a day. After an initial rush, vaccinations are slowing down, and it’s likely that not enough Americans will want vaccines to get to the fabled herd immunity. We won’t eradicate this thing so much as slowly get used to a lower level of Covid in society, with some — but not all — of us pretty well protected from sickness.
This means that we are going to enter a period of prolonged awkwardness. Society is already separating into several camps. There will be people who never cared much about Covid, and never changed their lives to take precautions. They will have decided that their personal experience — maybe they got lucky and never got sick, or maybe they got Covid and it wasn’t that bad — shows that there’s nothing to worry about, especially now that cases are declining. They will be quick to declare all of this over and may be irritated if people act as if it’s not.
There will be people who get vaccinated and quickly feel good about resuming pre-pandemic life. These folks will be, like the first group, eager to forget the last 14 months ever happened. They will tire quickly of wearing masks in public and keeping gatherings small. They stop looking at complicated CDC charts about what is safe and what is not, and just go back to their pre-Covid lives.
Many of the vaccinated, however, are going to be much more cautious. Some of them may be careful because they don’t quite trust that the vaccines will protect them. Others may simply have fallen into habits that are hard to shake. Many of them will feel a responsibility to protect others, since there is a small chance that a vaccinated person could carry Covid and pass it to somebody who isn’t yet vaccinated. Many of the people in this group have come to see Covid cautiousness as a sign of personal virtue, even identity, and will have a hard time reversing course.
The problem, of course, is that nobody knows which camp anybody else is in. Outside of friends and family, I will have no idea if that guy checking out the tomatoes at the grocery store will mind if I get in his personal space, or if the person on the sidewalk will panic a bit if I make a close pass on my jog.
Someday, we will pass a point where it’s no longer the responsibility of those of us who have been careful to worry about whether we will make unvaccinated people sick. In a couple of months, you could imagine that we will hit a threshold where any adult who wants the vaccine will have had ample opportunity to get it. Then, I suppose, the rest of us should no longer have to worry about the moral responsibility of unwittingly spreading a disease and indirectly killing someone.
The transition to that point, unfortunately, will be long, confusing, and personal. We won’t so much cross a clear finish line with Covid cautiousness as slowly phase out of it, each of us reaching our comfort zone at a different time and for different reasons. So, wherever you fall on the spectrum, get ready for many moments where your assessment of the Covid situation is out of sync with that of the people around you. It’s going to be an awkward summer.