Commentary: Will we return to public life as before, or can we do better?
A woman opens a store at the Mall of America on June 10, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many vaccinated people are still choosing to wear a mask when visiting businesses. (Stephen Maturen | Getty Images)
“I’m feeling a little sheepish about today, but better to be 1,000 percent safe, right?” my friend Jenna texted after I told her that my husband was waiting for the result of his COVID test, and I offered to reschedule our get-together. Jenna lives in Boston, and we hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of the pandemic. I hadn’t met her new puppy – who was no longer new nor, technically, a puppy. I couldn’t wait to see her. But my husband had had a sore throat and headache all week and, as one does these days, he got tested. It was only prudent that I let her know.
Everyone in this scenario was vaccinated, and I was comfortable visiting in person. But Jenna wanted to play it safe, and I understood. So we rescheduled. We’d waited over a year; we could wait another couple of weeks to make our reunion as safe as possible.
It’s a whole new world, as Disney has been known to say, and navigating it requires considering more than one’s own feelings.
At midnight on June 11, New Hampshire’s 15-month-old state of emergency came to an end. Remember March 13, 2020, when the emergency was set? How little we knew then, how uncertain and fearful most of us were as the unknown stretched before us. What if lockdown lasted longer than a month? My son was a high school senior, and when Bow High shut down, my son’s friend posited that they were done for the year. We laughed at this prediction – cautious, excited, small laughs accompanied by knocks on a wood table and a check on our toilet paper supply. Then we watched the significant dates on the calendar slide by: prom, senior cruise, and the Red Sox game replaced by an introduction to Zoom, a graduation sign on the lawn, a delivered gift bag . . . and waiting.
More than a year, hundreds of millions of vaccines, and immeasurable amounts of knowledge later, if you’re among those who never believed the virus was much of threat – though 600,000 deaths in the U.S. alone beg to differ – your life may not change much. But if you, like me, believe in science and followed the learning curves closely, then this milestone is significant. Things had already opened up considerably, but now it’s official: New Hampshire is fully open. Life is fully available again. The party is on.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had lunch with friends, attended a meeting in person, danced at a bat mitzvah, visited my father in his assisted-living facility, and even hugged people with whom I do not share a residence. Every one of these acts has felt like a step onto an exciting yet slightly dangerous new mountain path, where the views are fabulous but you have to be careful because it’s always possible you could lose your footing and slip down a rocky cliff. I mean, if you’re vaccinated, you’re probably going to be okay, right? So go ahead. Take another step, remove your mask. Just make sure you understand there’s still a risk.
Because here’s a truth about the pandemic: It’s not over. Many variables remain: disease variants, Americans who can’t or won’t get vaccinated, major outbreaks in other countries, people with reduced immunity for whom vaccines might not be fully effective, the possibility of a seasonal uptick in cases in the fall, etc. So even as we return to so many aspects of our former lives this summer, a bit of caution is warranted. So no matter how confident you feel about a return to normalcy, tuck some empathy and compassion – and, ideally, a mask – into your pocket when you leave the house.
Another reality: We all live in a society that has just undergone a significant trauma. Loss, depression, anxiety, isolation, economic distress, and people’s lives turned upside down won’t melt away just because our emergency status has been lifted. We will all remember this for the rest of our lives. For now, fear still sits among many of us like the proverbial houseguest overstaying their welcome, and while we’d like to kick it out, for many people, recovery isn’t going to be quick or easy.
And this recovery is taking place in a country that is already frayed. Even before the pandemic, it seemed we’d transformed into something more bitter, harder, nastier, and more selfish than we’d been a decade or so earlier. The crisis only sharpened that. People are concerned about themselves, which makes sense. But as we transition back into the world outside our homes, we need to remember we’re members of communities, too.
Last week I dropped off a few items at a tailor in Concord. (The universe of my sewing skills is basically attaching a button to a piece of cloth.) I put on my mask before entering, which I chiefly do inside businesses because I don’t know other people’s vaccination status or comfort levels. The owner and another patron were inside, both unmasked.
When I stepped into the shop, the patron looked at me, pulled a mask out of his pocket and said, “I’m vaccinated, but I can put my mask on if it would make you feel more comfortable.”
The owner, mask settled around her neck, followed up. “Oh, me, too. I’m vaccinated but will put my mask on if you’d like.” Both spoke with sincerity in their voices.
“That’s OK,” I answered. “I’m vaccinated, too.” And I removed my mask.
I share this anecdote not because I’m trying to say that I or the other two people involved possess any particular virtue, but because of the way it made me feel. Their earnest offers to put on masks if it would make me – someone they’d never met – feel more comfortable in turn made me trust their assertions that they had been vaccinated. Everyone was willing to do something for someone else’s peace of mind, even though each was confident they were personally protected. I still don’t know their politics, and they don’t know mine. That wasn’t relevant. It was just about being considerate, and being part of a caring community.
This state and country were founded in part on individual freedom. That’s essential and undeniable. But so, too, is the value of community, of caring about the people you interact with in the place that you live. As you go about your business, you don’t know what people’s stories are. You don’t know who lost someone to COVID. You don’t know who is immunocompromised. You don’t know if someone isn’t vaccinated because they are contraindicated due to prior vaccine allergic reaction. You do know, right now, that kids under 12 years of age aren’t vaccinated, and that plenty of older kids haven’t received their vaccines yet. Even if you don’t believe yourself to be much at risk, what does it cost you to be empathetic and compassionate toward other members of your community and don a mask if it would bring peace of mind to someone else?
As we transition back into public life, let the silver lining of COVID be this: that we learn to take the time to assess not only how to reemerge into our own lives, but how to ease life for those around us.
Let’s do better than return to normalcy. Let’s return to community with compassion. Let’s be better humans than we were before.
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