I was listening to a podcast the other day in which the guest, political commentator David Frum, likened the beginning of COVID-vaccinated life to a frightened, anxious dog whose kennel has been opened, but he’s not quite sure if he should (or is ready to) leave it.
It was a interesting metaphor — one that I suspect would resonate with a lot of people. After all, due to the pandemic, much of society was cooped up in its socially-distant lifestyle for over a year. Along the way, they were told by infectious disease experts and government officials — with good reason — that people should stay clear of one another. Remain six feet apart. No congregating. Wear a mask inside public places. These were the practices that would help protect ourselves and others.
Of course, some of the guidelines and restrictions went overboard, not always lining up with the science. It was clear pretty early on, for example, that it was extremely rare for COVID-19 to be transmitted through surface contact. Yet, throughout the pandemic, hand-washing and hand-sanitizing were presented as vital protection tools, and grocery stores and other businesses still tout how often their employees disinfect their equipment, doors, and countertops.
Then, there was that issue of wearing masks outside, which again, we knew early on didn’t make a whole lot of sense (unless perhaps people were close enough to make out with each other).
I’ve written about these discrepancies before, along with lots of messaging missteps from both health professionals and elected leaders, and I don’t feel like digging back into that topic today. Instead, I want to talk about the lives these miracle vaccines (I think it’s fair to call them that) are allowing people to return to after a very long time.
The science and statistics have shown that a fully vaccinated individual is extremely unlikely to become infected with COVID-19, and even less likely to pass it on to someone else. Those unlucky vaccinated few who do become infected (Bill Maher being a recent high-profile example) should still consider themselves to be pretty fortuante, because the vaccine better prepares their bodies to fight and recover from the virus… to the point that the chances of them having to be hospitalized or dying from it are effectively zero.
In other words, fully vaccinated people should be able to safely do just about everything they could safely do prior to the pandemic (as the CDC has finally confirmed in its latest recommendations). That revelation should come with an overwhelming sense of liberation for most individuals. But as Frum suggests, the more accurate word for a lot of people might be tepidity.
I admit I’ve felt it. Two weeks after my second shot, I ate dinner with my wife inside a restaurant for the first time since February or March of 2020. To be clear, I’ve eaten plenty of restaurant food throughout the pandemic, whether it be take-out, carry-out, or from a restaurant table on an outside patio. But that night was my first time back inside a restaurant, and though we had fun, it did feel a bit awkward and uneasy. Coughs from around the dining room would catch my attention, and I felt inclined to still give others plenty of space (as they did me) in the hallway outside the restroom.
Afterwards, my wife and I went to a movie theater that had just reopened. The couple that initially sat directly behind us quickly decided the proximity was too close for their comfort, so they got up and moved a couple rows back. Part of me felt like saying, “It’s okay, we’re vaccinated,” but another part of me totally understood where they were coming from, and was even a bit… relieved.
I think it may take a little while before a lot of society becomes comfortable with itself again.
Sure, there are people out there who didn’t really take this health crisis serious from the beginning, and never held much regard for the warnings. Some of them were even lucky enough never to have become infected (though just about every one of my Facebook friends who openly mocked the health crisis over the last year wasn’t so fortunate).
But many of those who believed they had a responsibility to at least try and keep themselves and others safe during the pandemic, and have now been vaccinated, are experiencing a little difficulty acclimating to their old ways. There are things that would probably make the process easier (like more people getting vaccinated to help stomp this virus into nothingness), but you can’t control what others do; you can only control what you do.
And to that broader point, Frum described how he and his wife are planning to get past their own tepidity. They’ve booked a multi-state train trip to New York City where they’ll be dining out with friends every night and catching Broadway shows. They’ll of course find themselves among lots and lots of strangers, in relatively close quarters, along the way.
Sort of a trial by fire approach, in which the fire is normalcy.
I think it makes sense, and since that first dine-in experience a few weeks ago, my wife and I (along with friends) have eaten in restaurants several more times; it feels more ordinary with each sitting.
Of course, there are still some COVID-19 business restrictions (like mask-wearing) in place, depending on where you live and where you go. Those restrictions should be respected by customers, including those who are fully vaccinated. In other situations, individuals who choose to keep wearing a mask — even after they’re vaccinated — should also be respected. I was as pro-mask as anyone (my readers can testify to this); it was an important mitigation tool. If vaccinated people aren’t quite ready to take theirs’ off (for whatever reason), that’s fine with me; they’re not hurting anyone.
But the ordinary life is largely within reach, and I’m grabbing for it. My family has several trips (including air-travel) planned, and we’re looking forward to going to concerts again (we’ve had tickets to see The Black Crowes since 2019).
I saw this marquee photo online the other day, and I loved the message:
Honestly, going to concerts should be the biggest psychological barrier breaker of them all. It’s a tight environment where everyone’s singing and there isn’t a whole lot of breathing room. And on a personal note, it’s also an atmosphere in which drunk strangers are often trying to hug me. (Seriously, this happens a fair amount, and I’ve never understood why. I’m an inexplicable magnet for such folks.)
In summary, normalcy is here. In my view, the vaccinated in particular should embrace and enjoy it… even if it feels weird at first.
Note from John: I’ve been writing a weekly non-political newsletter since October, covering topics like art, music, humor, travel, society and culture. I’ve been surprised by, and thankful for, how many people have been signing up for it. If it sounds interesting to you, I’d love for you to subscribe (it’s free).