As I write, 29 percent of my county is fully vaccinated; appointments are now open to every New Yorker. The vaccines themselves are — let us pause to note — incredible: practically perfect and created at superhero speed. It’s as if the scientists said, “Just stay put. We’ll get you out of this,” and, after just one season of “Ted Lasso” and two Taylor Swift albums, they did.
But in Albany County, as in the country as a whole, new cases are up, the positivity rate is up, hospitalizations are up. Our county transmission rate is rated “high.” I drove by a highway sign this morning that flashed “COVID IS STILL A RISK.” So how are we supposed to behave? Do we put away our parkas yet?
I know: Obviously, we wait for our second shot, then wait two weeks more. But then am I free to behave as before? Can I travel? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s safe but also that it’s not really safe. When can I eat in restaurants again? When can I have my friends over? When can I plan for the future?
Oh how I miss planning! I know I’m supposed to have perfected the art of living in the moment, but sometimes the moment is located midway through a Zoom meeting about the feasibility of setting up another, larger, Zoom meeting, and at those times it would be nice to have something to look forward to.
The same week I got my first shot, my daughter was accepted into a program out of state for the fall semester. That acceptance letter included a start date — Aug. 28, 2021 — which I seized upon as the first real, true, definite date of our post-pandemic life.
But as soon as I let myself picture packing, driving and saying goodbye, I got nervous. I thought of all the events — the high school graduation, the senior recital, the milestone birthday, the trip with friends — that evaporated from our calendars last year; each date marked now not with fond memories and photographs but with the faintest ghostprint of loss. Could I really start believing that what I plan for six months from now will actually occur?
Federal officials are warning of a possible fourth surge. Health experts worry that fast-moving covid variants might outpace vaccine distribution. France just entered lockdown for the third time. That means two times someone said, “C’est fini!” and it wasn’t. Twice my son went through dorm-room quarantine: first arriving last fall to an “isn’t this fun?!” basket brimming with junk food and next arriving this spring to an “I guess we’re still doing this” case of bottled water. All signs indicate that next fall will bring a return to campus as usual. I can’t help noting, though — that’s what we thought this time last year, too.
My local library closed, then opened, then closed again. Now it’s open, but when I tiptoed in for a book last week, it looked less like my second home and more like an art installation: “Protocols” c. 2021, plexiglass on wood laminate, A-frame signage, hand sanitizer. Was it my imagination or were all the chairs removed?
When can we relax in public again, when can we settle, when can we say “c’est fini”?
Look, I’m not desperate. I’m one of those fortunate people whose pandemic life was characterized not by devastation or loss but by inconvenience, constraint and the blessing of being legally obligated to stay home with my kids. I actually feel a little wistful about this unforgettable year of hibernation. And not quite ready to fulfill my extravagant promises to my travel-hungry, party-deprived pandemic self.
But I don’t have time to dawdle: There’s no reason to think this is our last brush with global health disaster. On March 30, 27 world leaders called for an international treaty to deal with “future pandemics”; the New York Times has helpfully spelled out 14 lessons for the next pandemic. There is no “over.” There is only a pause.
Once we’re vaccinated, we have to try to act as if we’re living after this pandemic and before the next one. As if we can count on only a brief spell of warm weather before winter returns.
Covid is still a risk. But as soon as it’s not a risk to me — and I’m not a risk to others — I’m heading out.