Not so fast, the official guidance instructs, withering our hope even before it can germinate. Not too much, not too soon. Not yet. “What’s Safe After Covid-19 Vaccination? Don’t Shed Masks Yet,” tsk-tsked a New York local news story this week. Anthony S. Fauci told a 91-year-old woman that she and her similarly vaccinated friends would have to hang on a little longer before resuming their mah-jongg games. Seriously?
This leaves us stuck at a frustrating and tantalizing halfway point: Things are better than they were last week, but worse than they were last year. Plain old pandemic life was relatively simple. Distance. Wear masks. Work remotely. Now, bit by bit, we must learn to navigate in this no man’s land between pandemic and non-pandemic life.
The evolving dos and don’ts may seem a matter of science, based on our knowledge of whether the inoculated can transmit the disease, or on our progress toward the promised land of herd immunity. Yet, the twisty route we’ll travel out of this mess is, at bottom, a social question. We’ve silently written laws for responsible but tolerable existence over the past year. Now, we are in the process of amending them to accommodate a more nuanced reality.
The earliest days of the covid-19 pandemic taught us that nothing was okay except staying indoors and isolated. Then we developed a fresh set of rules, denoting our individualized yeses, maybes and noes. Yes, you can go for a masked, distanced walk with a friend. Maybe, you can go to the grocery store if you limit the number and time of your trips — and maybe you can even dine outdoors if it’s actually outdoors and not one of those tents with a teeny tiny flap open to the elements. No, you can’t go clubbing in Tulum.
What was socially sanctioned and what was verboten varied, depending on our communities and our smaller circles within them. Some, of course, acted abominably — assertively noncompliant. For the rest, though, there were unspoken rules that, after a while, we came to understand: compacts more complex and comprehensive than any CDC guidance, and more powerful, too. We who want to be responsible also want to be seen as responsible. Plenty of photos posted to Instagram come these days with some form of disclaimer. We quarantined. We took multiple tests. We’re a pod. We’re good.
We’ve stayed sane so far because we’ve lived this lonely life together. Maybe that’s why officials are so reluctant to tell the vaccinated they now have a pass. Everything might fall apart when we stop asking everyone to sacrifice.
We’ve spent a spring, summer, fall and winter calibrating our socially distanced lives, and now another spring has arrived and we’re beginning again. The yeses, noes and maybes are changing — but some of them are only changing for the vaccinated, and others of them can’t change as fully as they might so long as the unvaccinated remain. Yes, you can go to the grocery store now if you’re vaccinated, but still limit your time and your trips. No, you can’t throw out your mask, no matter what.
What happens when the vaccinated and the unvaccinated dare cross the divide? We still haven’t quite decided whether those who’ve had both shots can have dinner — indoors — with others who’ve had both shots. This bodes ill for answering whether the ostensibly immune and the vulnerable can enjoy each other’s company. Socially distancing we’ve finally figured out; socially sort-of distancing from some and socially even-less distancing from others will prove a puzzle.
And this isn’t only a concern of figuring out what is safe, but also of relearning how to behave. We see these sidesteps, shuffles and tiptoes as part of our progress getting back to normal. Yet all the norms have changed. Those who have settled into this unsettling reality wonder how exactly we’re going to wrench ourselves out of it. We’ll have to accustom ourselves to looking into another person’s eyes instead of a computer camera, and stop shrinking from strangers when our shoulders brush in tight spaces. We’ll have to discover how to behave at a party where we know only the host and her dog.
Back to normal, when we make it there, won’t feel normal at all.