In many ways, the pandemic has never felt quite so paradoxical. In the United States, cases and hospitalizations are falling, and millions of people are as vaccinated as they can be. A rash of coastal-state mayors and governors is peeling back mask mandates—a stateside mirror of countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, where pandemic restrictions have all but disappeared. Things are definitively better than they were just a few weeks ago. And yet—and yet—they are nowhere near anything we’d ever call good. Immunization rates on the whole are still far too low. The next variant of concern is inevitably on its way. The health-care system is still stretched too thin, and the COVID-conscious cohort is thinning by the hour. The pandemic has always been a tricky behavioral landscape for individuals to navigate. But now? It’s like all of us are walking an isthmus between islands of dread, the mainland still very much out of sight.
There is also, regrettably, no universal map—and most of our internal compasses probably feel shot. Two years into the global crisis, individual choices and circumstances have stretched the vulnerability spectrum so that it now spans young, healthy, and at least three vaccines deep all the way to old, immunocompromised, and totally unjabbed. At every point along this continuum, some people are still trying to ratchet down risk as much as they can; some are living entirely sans COVID cares. We’re all trying to make decisions for ourselves, and still every pandemic choice affects all of us at once. It’s no wonder “so many people have thrown their hands up and said, ‘Screw it,’” Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told me.
I’ll come out and say it: All of this is truly exhausting, and it very much sucks.
The best move right now isn’t to dive into a maskless mosh pit. But it also isn’t to resign ourselves to staying home forever. As binary as our choices might sometimes seem, it is possible to shed some of the pandemic’s crumminess while helping it come to a less catastrophic end. To socialize and enjoy things on a personal level, without compromising public well-being. Finding these small graces “is necessary right now,” says Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The pandemic is not over. But if we let it, this stretch may be defined less by what we can’t do, and more by what we safely, carefully, finally can.
At the very least, our basic infection-prevention template has not really changed; at this point, many people can recite the rules in their sleep. Outdoors is better than indoors, smaller gatherings better than large; masks, ventilation, tests, vaccines, and distance can all buoy safety. Separating ourselves from others will cut down on spread—an intuitive-enough idea. But very few things check all of those boxes; certainly, a lot of the activities people have been craving—indoor dining, house parties, concerts, aerobics classes—do not.
Which leaves us to make tough decisions at the individual level, choices that are subject to the same tortuous pandemic math we’ve been running through for many, many months. The problem is that the arithmetic here has never just been my benefit minus my cost; infectious diseases don’t respect the boundaries of any single body at once. When a virus is at play, it’s more my benefit minus my cost and everyone else’s, a calculation in which some variables will always be unknown. “Our brains are just not good at this,” Rupali Limaye, a public-health researcher at Johns Hopkins University, told me.
Complicating this further is the fact that, for many people, individual risk has clearly, and thankfully, shrunk. Millions of Americans are now triply dosed with vaccines that can slash the odds of disease and death; a large fraction have an added bump of immunity from infection too. That’s making the net benefits of certain individual behaviors look all the more appealing, while collective risk remains abstract. Meanwhile, the cost of caution is only growing; many are weary of gaining marginal returns from the precautions that have swallowed their lives for 20-some months. “People don’t want to wait anymore,” Kenneth Carter, a psychologist and risk-behavior expert at Emory University, told me. Delayed gratification doesn’t work so well when the delay has no clear end in sight.
“I get that,” Carter said. He, too, gladly acknowledges that he’s sick and tired of the pandemic. But he’s trying to channel his energy into finding small, sustainable joys with very low collective cost. He’s dined indoors, always in well-ventilated restaurants, and attended masked movie matinees. These decisions have factored in his own vaccination status (boosted) and the fact that he’s not in close contact with anyone vulnerable. Alison Buttenheim, a health-behavior researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that she’s thinking similarly. She met a close colleague for an indoor latte and doughnut—one of the first times she’d been able to enjoy her friend’s company in two years. “The social and professional return justified it,” she said. The latte-doughnut date was also carefully timed and placed, at a café that checked vaccination status and kept tables spaced far apart, in a city where case rates have been dropping. This small act, given the circumstances, felt, for the first time in a long time, okay.
Bigger, bolder behavioral swings are possible too—though they make the calculus of individual benefit and collective risk that much more complicated. Daniel Goldberg, a public-health-policy researcher at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, told me that after a 15-month hiatus, he restarted his training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in June—and he has kept it up through the rise and fall of Delta and now in the age of Omicron. Prior to the pandemic, he’d discovered the sport to be “one of the most powerful mental-health and well-being tools in my life,” he said. But jiu-jitsu is a full-contact martial art, a mishmash of bodily tackles, sweat-slicked grapples, and extended on-the-ground pins; heavy breathing is a given and training in a mask is essentially impossible. “If you’re going to design an activity for the spread of a dangerous respiratory virus, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than jiu-jitsu,” he said.
Goldberg knows that the risks to him—a relatively young, healthy, thrice-vaccinated person—are quite low. The same goes for his partner and their 14-year-old daughter, who both have also been triply dosed. But the perks of jiu-jitsu, Goldberg said, are primarily for him; the risks, meanwhile, might not be. If he were to contract the coronavirus, it could pass from him to someone unvaccinated, older, or immunocompromised; it could saddle even someone low-risk with long COVID. These are all unlikely events. But Goldberg, as a self-described population-health enthusiast, is conscious of a planet of people who do not get a say in his jiu-jitsu training schedule.
So he spars in tight-knit groups, with partners who share his COVID conscientiousness. He tests himself at home frequently. And he’s avoiding indoor dining, large gatherings, and nearly all travel to keep his overall risk budget trim. “I do that one thing and nothing else,” he said. He also keeps close tabs on local case rates, viral surveillance in wastewater, and hospital capacity. When there’s a transmission uptick or if someone in his training group has an exposure, they’ll skip class, or even stop sparring for a week or two.
I asked Goldberg what would persuade him to reenter total jiu-jitsu hibernation. He’s not sure; nothing, so far. He’s also still trying to figure out what would help him expand his behavioral boundaries. Jiu-jitsu aside, his family has been living very COVID-spartan since the spring of 2020. He often defaults to caution in his behavioral repertoire, because he doesn’t “have the answer on whether or not it’s ultimately okay.” Maybe things will change if case numbers keep ticking down; it’s tough to say, with everything still so up in the air. But he’s taking what he can get for now. “I’ve tried to sort of embrace the idea that things will have to be dialed up and dialed back,” he said.
It’s worth acknowledging here that all of us can hear “Patience, grasshopper” only so many times before we decide to burn everything to the ground. This is a trash place to be, after spending such a long time in crisis. And as my colleague Derek Thompson has written, the “Stay vigilant” ask may feel especially unfair for the people who have been holding the line on caution for years, only to watch their neighbors and colleagues—some of the very people they’ve been trying to protect—snub or exploit that graciousness. COVID has not gone away, despite their best efforts, and maybe worse, the still-COVID-conscious are having to bear more of the burden, even as their ranks dwindle. Vigilance is that much tougher when you feel like you’re the only one on watch.
But that is many people’s reality, and not everyone has the wiggle room to act more freely. Hidalgo, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told me that living in a state where vaccination rates are low and enthusiasm for other infection-prevention measures is scarce has prompted her to draw sharper borders around her behavior. She feels confident saying that her family of four is living far more strictly than most in her community. Her two sons, ages 8 and 12, are the only kids on their respective basketball teams who play fully masked; even the crowds at their games have turned into a sea of uncovered faces. She, her husband, and the kids are all vaccinated. But they’re still avoiding restaurants, movie theaters, and large gatherings of any kind. They’ve traveled only twice in the past two years, and visit vulnerable relatives, including Hidalgo’s parents, only sparingly. Things might feel rosier if they lived in California or New York, but they don’t. “Our situation is completely different,” she said. Hidalgo knows that her risk tolerance is “on the low end,” but she prefers not to frame it that way—her decision calculus isn’t about what she wants, or about what will make her comfortable. “Have we eliminated a lot from our life? Yes,” she said. “But there is sufficient need to prevent infection.”
Nearly every expert I spoke with for this story pointed out that the possibility of taking risks small and large still remains heavily predicated on circumstances—for example, having the means to find and purchase tests and high-quality masks, or to work from home—and the luck of being healthy and young or hosting a functional immune system. When making choices, Limaye, of Johns Hopkins, told me that it helps to remind herself of the potential good that small actions can do: for those who can, donning a mask, taking a test, skipping a gathering. “I don’t think it’s asking for a whole lot,” she said, when those costs are stacked against the protection that others might gain. For Emory’s Carter, that feeling is empowering on an individual level too. Masks, tests, ventilation, and vaccines are now helping him engage in activities that were out of the question during the pandemic’s early days.
It’s easy to center conversations about risk around the negatives—how bad individual choices can compound into collective chaos. But tiny, wise decisions, as my colleague Ed Yong has written, can also add up to a whole lot of good. New variants and new surges, like natural disasters, will keep happening: Carter told me that his approach to the pandemic has morphed into a version of hurricane watch, in which the right tools can be rapidly deployed when danger threatens and shelved when it clears. If we truly are heading into a low-case-number lull, then it’s actually a time to prepare—to come to a mutual understanding about taking risks wisely, about selecting joys judiciously, about distributing protection as widely and equitably as we can. During a pandemic, there will always be loss: disease, death, avoidance, restriction. But that doesn’t have to erase the opportunity for gain, Goldberg told me, before the door for it slams shut. “This is our collective opportunity to take care of each other.”