Now Is as Good a Time as There’ll Ever Be to Leave Your Pandemic Bubble
As Omicron recedes, the COVID-cautious can reassess what’s possible. It’s time to figure out a way to live that feels sustainable in the long term.
Throughout the pandemic, the question of whether it’s safe to do fun things has been exceedingly un-fun to answer. Personally, I remember distinct periods over the past two years when the advice was Definitely not; please, no; you could’ve gone out three weeks ago, but not now; and not yet, be patient. And at some moments, such as after the murder of George Floyd and now, during the invasion of Ukraine, analyzing the risks of, say, going to a bar have seemed a bit frivolous.
Finally, though, many Americans are at—or, depending on where they live, very close to—the point where a responsible coronavirus expert will respond to this question with a deeply satisfying Yes. It may not surprise you to learn that this yes, as with most pandemic guidance, comes with some important qualifiers: Yes, but not everyone; yes, until things get bad again; yes, but experts differ on how much fun is too much. But a yes of any kind is a relief.
Of course, many people stopped taking no for an answer long ago. People have been having all sorts of indoor, unmasked fun throughout this whole miserable experience. But plenty of others have continued cautiously abstaining from many activities. According to an AP-NORC poll conducted in mid-February, 24 percent of Americans are “extremely” or “very” worried about themselves or a family member getting infected by the virus. And in an Axios/Ipsos poll earlier in the month, 12 percent of respondents expected to return to their pre-pandemic life “within the next six months,” 20 percent said “within the next year,” and 27 percent said “more than a year from now.” (An additional 17 percent said they never would.)
But many of these people can safely ramp up the activities they partake in—if not immediately, then likely within weeks. Most of the pandemic experts I consulted said that if you’re boosted and not at high risk of severe illness (or living with someone who is), you can throw dinner parties, go to the movies, dine indoors, and travel now or soon—just keep an eye on local case counts and hospitalizations. “You [shouldn’t] go crazy right now, but this is the time—as the Omicron wave is subsiding, whenever it does in the region you’re in—[when] you can go out and do fun things,” Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me.
People who are older or immunocompromised have had to be more cautious than others throughout the pandemic. Now is no exception, but still, experts think that, depending on people’s personal circumstances and comfort levels, many in these groups could sometimes go out (if they wear a good mask) and socialize (if others get tested). They also think that families with kids who aren’t old enough to be vaccinated can do some fun things too.
The rationale is that, after the Omicron wave, the pandemic is expected to settle at a level of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths lower than that of the past couple of months. The state of the pandemic will worsen again when another wave eventually comes, but it is unlikely to significantly improve beyond a certain baseline anytime soon. In other words, we’re not waiting on any breakthroughs to dramatically slash the virus’s threat—the post-Omicron equilibrium will likely be something like the minimum level of risk for a long time. (Vaccines for children under 5 would help families, but as multiple experts pointed out, little kids are still at low risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19.)
So it seems likely that now (or the near future) is as good a time as there’ll ever be to return to some activities you may have been avoiding. The virus “is going to be here for a long time,” Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine, told me. “So if the logic is, Well, we can’t go out to eat, because there’s COVID, then we can never go out to eat again, because there’s going to be COVID with us forever, basically.”
Bringing back fun is not the same as declaring the pandemic over, or being “vaxxed and done.” It’s more like being “boosted and figuring out a way to live sustainably in the long term.” That is, have some fun, but don’t completely ignore the virus. One of the experts I spoke with, Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, was considerably more cautious than the others. He was concerned about prematurely encouraging people to let loose when what the post-Omicron equilibrium will look like is still unclear, and suggested easing back into some activities much more slowly. For instance, for the next month, he’d recommend that people go to the movies only if the theater has vaccination and mask requirements. (If you find it exasperating to weigh conflicting advice from pandemic experts, I’m right there with you.)
Even the more permissive experts’ advice doesn’t apply to everyone. If you are older or immunocompromised (or live with someone who is), there isn’t a simple rule for how much you can do now. It may be frustrating for people in these groups to see others have fun and feel like they can’t, but the experts I spoke with said that they can also open up their life a bit. Noymer said that going to a museum or the movies in a strongly protective mask seems okay, and so does having people over, as long as they test themselves; at the same time, he would advise against frequently dining indoors. Ultimately, a sensible mix of activities will depend on your specific situation.
And then there is the question of children under 5, who are not currently eligible to receive a COVID vaccine. The experts I spoke with viewed this group as less of a concern. Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and the author of the ParentData newsletter, told me that being the parent of a small child shouldn’t stop either of you from socializing, and that, risk-wise, she’d “lump your unvaccinated kids in with everyone else.” Noymer and Sell advised a bit of caution, but less than what they recommended for people who are older or immunocompromised.
Regardless of your personal risk factors, the experts I spoke with still felt iffy about some activities. Sell advised against going to an unmasked indoor concert; Noymer and Oster both said they would consider attending one, but they’d wear a mask even if nobody else did. Noymer said he’d attend an unmasked house party, but only if he knew the other attendees and trusted that they’d be vaccinated; Sell said her answer “probably depends on how big” the party is.
Lots of state and local governments have recently decided to lift their mask mandates, but the experts I spoke with felt that wearing a mask is still a good idea in many situations. Noymer’s advice is to wear one when you’re indoors, except when you’re eating (obviously) or when you know that everyone else present is vaccinated. He still wears one when he goes to the grocery store, for instance. Sell, meanwhile, said she’d lean toward masking in a movie theater and would definitely do so on public transportation.
A large caveat is that all this advice could get rolled back when another wave hits, whether because of seasonal patterns or the emergence of a new variant. At least one more wave seems likely this year, but we don’t know exactly when it’ll come, how many more there will be, or how serious they’ll be. The key is to be aware that we might need to scale back our activities again, possibly soon or possibly a while from now. Noymer, who’s doing some fun things now, said, “I’ll be the first to beat a retreat back into hermitage if a new variant comes around that is significantly worse.”
But post-Omicron, many people who are up to date on their vaccinations can enjoy a period—which may be temporary, or may be indefinite—when the coronavirus is what Oster called a “blend into the background” risk, both in terms of your own personal risk and the chance that you’ll spread the virus to others. “If I go to a dinner party,” she said, “I could get in a car accident on the way there or the person can serve some bad shellfish and I can get the norovirus. When does [COVID enter] that space of risks? I think the answer is now.”
Oster also thinks that, assuming cases settle at a lower level and deaths follow, people can stop keeping track of their “risk budgets” like earlier in the pandemic and just do things without agonizing over whether saying yes to one thing necessitates saying no to another. In her view, for people who are boosted and aren’t high-risk, a bigger concern than the health consequences of getting COVID is probably how much a positive test might disrupt your life.
Realistically, it could be years until the answer to the question Can I have fun? is Yes, without any caveats or asterisks; people who are older or immunocompromised will likely have to wait longer to reach that state, and some of them may never. The process of getting to that point, Omer said, is partly about gradual increases in immunity (as more people get vaccinated or recover from infections) and partly about advancements in treating COVID.
In time, we’ll be at a point where, Omer said, “only the professionals are worrying about it on a daily basis,” not “the person going to a restaurant or wanting to take their kids to a playdate.” That sounds stressful for him, but how wonderful it will be for the rest of us.