The first time I heard there was a problem, I was hanging out in a leather bar.
A friend texted with news that Provincetown, Massachusetts, the queer beach town where I’d been vacationing, had experienced a spike of COVID-19 cases among vaccinated people. He asked about the mood in town. I looked around the room and saw burly guys—it was Bear Week—chatting over beers. I remembered what another friend had told me about how many leather bars are designed as long, corridor-like spaces to enable cruising and casual brushes. I thought about the vaccines’ well-publicized efficacy rate, and the articles saying that occasional breakthrough infections were nothing to panic about. I texted back that the mood in town was jubilant.
It really was. A visit to Provincetown, a village at the tip of Cape Cod where the Pilgrims first landed, has become an annual ritual for me and my friends: It’s a beautiful place, a quaint place, a gay place, and a very fun place. In the depths of 2020’s dreariness, when it seemed like life would never return to normal, what I craved most was the feeling of fellowship that comes in the summer there. Visitors spend the day lolling on beaches and then glam themselves up for the high-energy happy hour known as Tea. Later, many of them dance in the same storied building that Tennessee Williams once hung out in. When closing time comes, throngs congregate outside one scruffy pizza joint and then keep the party going within the town’s many nautically decorated lodgings.
My crew had booked a 2021 trip last December after news of the vaccines emerged, on a tenuous hope that the nation would have opened up by July—but with the understanding that even a shut-down P-Town is as lovely as anywhere in summertime. America’s vaccine rollout unfolded with surprising briskness, and most people I know were up to full immunity by sometime in May. The CDC dropped its mask advisories for vaccinated people, and in New York City, nightlife returned with explosive energy. What shocked me, as I jostled back to bars, was how normal it all felt. The pandemic had not rewired my brain to hate meeting people and doing stuff. It matters that the time we’ve all spent on Earth being able to go out and socialize far outweighs the time we’ve spent in this pandemic.
Things felt normal, too, in P-Town in early-mid-July—which is to say, yes, they felt jubilant. I only rarely stopped to marvel at how miraculous it was to gossip over seafood in air-conditioned restaurants. But the bliss bubble would slowly start to deflate. My friend texted me about breakthroughs on Monday, July 12; I’d gotten to town three days earlier. The prior week had been, by all accounts, ebullient as well: The Fourth of July traditionally attracts the circuit boys, a subcategory of energetic gay men who build their calendars around raves across the world. It was during Independence Week that COVID-19 cases first began to climb in Provincetown—and climb in such a way that showed how post-vaccine life wasn’t going to be as simple as it had seemed.
Last Tuesday, the CDC issued new guidelines advising that vaccinated people go back to wearing masks indoors in public in areas with high transmission rates. Its recommendation partly reflected data gathered in Provincetown, where, from July 3 to July 17, the per-day COVID-19 case rate among residents spiked from zero per 100,000 people to 177 per 100,000 people. Among Massachusetts residents who tested positive there, three-fourths were fully vaccinated, and among those vaccinated people, 79 percent—274 individuals—experienced symptoms, mild in most cases. These numbers, along with numbers gathered elsewhere, suggested that breakthroughs were turning out to be more common and more serious than the CDC previously expected. The shots still reduce the severity and deadliness of infections, but compared with the original coronavirus, the Delta variant increases the chance that, if infected, vaccinated people can transmit the virus.
The extent of the problem in Provincetown was not clear all at once, though. Instead, the picture coalesced via a trickle of rumors and headlines that no one knew how to react to. It certainly still seemed possible that the breakthrough cases were flukes. After all, the CDC’s guidelines at the time indicated that vaccinated people likely wouldn’t worsen the pandemic by congregating unmasked. Nearly all eligible Provincetown residents had gotten their shots, and the resort that held Tea—the bottleneck through which many of P-Town’s visitors would pass—was admitting only vaccinated people. On Wednesday of that week, we went to my favorite regular P-Town party, in a bar’s basement. It featured fog machines, glittery outfits, funky house music, and oppressive, humid body heat. At the end of the night, the DJ screamed the chorus of Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight” into a large light bulb that he held like a mic, and we all screamed it back at him.
By the weekend, a lot of people were sick. One friend in the house I was staying in developed a bad cough and quarantined in his room. I was losing my voice but hoped that was just from yelling and drinking wine. During chitter-chatter at the beach, everyone speculated that the town would imminently shut down. I biked with some friends to get a PCR test. My result came back a day later: negative. The housemate with the cough: negative. But a shocking number of other friends, some of whom had gone back home to Boston or New York, were testing positive—and experiencing fevers, muscle aches, coughs, fatigue, or loss of taste and smell. Parties were canceled, and Provincetown officials held an emergency meeting to issue a mask advisory, which later became a mandate.
I was scheduled to stay for one more week, to work remotely from paradise. It turned out to be an eerie paradise, laden with confusion. We’d followed the rules, and people had gotten sick. The shots were still working to curb the severity of infections: Only four vaccinated Massachusetts residents in Provincetown have been hospitalized because of COVID-19, and none has died. Yet one friend of mine was sick enough to need to take a week off of work. A few had multiple days of high fevers. We all blamed unvaccinated visitors for, presumably, spreading the variant around town. But we also nursed a suspicion that vaccinated people could spread the virus.
Now that our suspicion has been confirmed by scientists, is there any going back? Some pundits are arguing over whether the CDC is right to make guidelines based on what happened in Provincetown: Most spots in America are not party havens dotted with cramped bars that attract groups from all over. But at the very least, it seems obvious that Delta will be a big problem for indoor nightlife and entertainment of all sorts. Venues where strangers meet strangers and old friends run into one another can check vaccination status at the door—but if attendees can still pass the virus to one another, it introduces the possibility of them leaving and passing it on to vulnerable people outside. And a sticky basement party is simply not doable in a mask.
Some friends with breakthrough cases have said that on top of their physical discomfort, they feel ambivalence and even shame about the fun they had before the reality of Delta became clear. Some worry that the attention now heaped on Provincetown will feed into stereotypes of gay recklessness—when really, the fact that so many people were vaccinated and got tested is a story of carefulness. Other friends reason that we should start thinking of COVID-19 like we think of colds and flu: Most people, pre-pandemic, didn’t freak out if they felt crummy after a week of partying. It remains true that the best way to fight COVID-19’s deadliness is with vaccines, and it appears that individual people, businesses, and localities will have to decide how they react to Delta. But even where full revelry goes on, the new reality of how the variant works will be inescapable. It’s hard to imagine, right now, feeling as free as we did for a couple of days in July.