Jha, for instance, expects to host 20 or so friends for a Fourth of July barbecue in his backyard, with every adult vaccinated and no one having to wear a mask. He imagines himself being comfortable eating indoors at a restaurant later on in the summer, provided it’s not packed and the ventilation is decent.
The summer will still have its limitations, though. The experts I spoke with didn’t foresee the return of indoor concerts, full attendance at sporting events, or high levels of international travel.
They did, however, expect that Americans will be able to ease up on mask wearing and social distancing in other contexts. “I think when people are vaccinated themselves, they will start letting their guard down, but it will also genuinely be safer from a public-health perspective,” said Jennifer Beam Dowd, a professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford and the chief scientific officer of Dear Pandemic, a COVID-19 public-education campaign. Noymer’s prediction is that masking will be necessary in public settings until every American has at least been offered a vaccine, at which point he figures he would be okay with repealing mask mandates.
Even once these precautions are no longer strictly necessary, many people will probably keep up some of them, opting to wear a mask, say, on public transportation or in a grocery store. Oster thinks that while certain activities should become much safer over the summer, many people might not be comfortable resuming them until the end of the year or even later.
Even if the summer feels like the end of the pandemic, it could turn out to be more of a temporary reprieve.
Most of the U.S. population should be vaccinated by the fall, but some resurgence of the virus seems likely in the colder months. “It won’t be as bad as this winter, but I don’t know if it’s going to be pretty bad or [if] just a few people will get it,” Noymer said.
Thankfully, the latter scenario seems more likely, and could still allow for additional normalcy; indoor concerts might even come back. “The summer might be a little early for really large crowds,” Dowd said. “I see the autumn as the important turning point for those kinds of mass gatherings.”
This scenario might result in isolated viral flare-ups, but vaccines should significantly reduce the likelihood that anyone who gets infected would end up in the hospital, and could also make them less likely to spread the virus.
Read: What if we never reach herd immunity?
Another outcome seems less probable but more troubling: Whether because a variant ends up evading existing vaccines or because infections surge among unvaccinated people, cases might climb again. Even after a wonderful summer, a rise in cases could necessitate a reversion to many of the precautions from earlier in the pandemic, even if it doesn’t require full-on lockdowns. “I’m not saying that the return of the masks and working from home and all the crap that we hate is guaranteed,” Noymer said. “But if it does return, it won’t be in the summer. It’ll be in the fall.”