Open Everything

The time to end pandemic restrictions is now.

An illustration of a safe door withe a coronavirus particle figure as the lock.
The Atlantic

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.

In March 2020, I wrote that America should “cancel everything” in response to the acute threat posed by COVID-19: Mass events should be postponed, companies should send employees home from the office, and schools should move classes online.

I remain convinced that this was the right thing to do. Before anyone was vaccinated, and before doctors had even a preliminary understanding of how to treat the disease, these measures were necessary to save lives and avert a collapse of the medical system.

Almost two years later, highly effective vaccines are available, free of charge, to any American over the age of 5 who chooses to take them. Antiviral pills, which will further reduce the risk posed by COVID-19, will soon be in wide circulation. We finally have the tools to live with the coronavirus. Yet life in America remains shaped by pandemic caution thanks to state directives, policies adopted by private organizations, and choices made by individuals.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were too slow to adapt to changing circumstances. Now we are once again in danger of prolonging the status quo more than is justifiable. It is time to open everything.

The most severe government restrictions on everyday activities adopted at the height of the pandemic have since been lifted. So in response to my call to open everything, some will inevitably claim that America is no longer closed. Just this week, they will note, Democrat-led states including New Jersey and Connecticut announced that they would soon end some mask mandates.

But this view ignores how profoundly steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus still affect everyday life, and how much reopening work is left to do. An Axios/Ipsos poll found that only 18 percent of Americans say their lives have returned to normal. In many parts of the country, children and teachers continue to wear masks in the classroom. Exposure rules keep kids at home for days on end. Many white-collar workers still haven’t returned to the office. Significant restrictions on international travel persist. What my colleague Derek Thompson dubbed “hygiene theater” remains widespread, with businesses and government offices engaging in costly deep cleaning even though surfaces are not a significant source of viral transmission.

In their personal lives, many Americans go even further than these official safety requirements. I understand why. We were told that face-to-face contact with other human beings constituted a significant risk to others and ourselves. Many of us became accustomed to carrying out an informal risk-benefit analysis before every outing. Although few people forgo social activities to the extent they did in 2020, many still ask themselves whether that spontaneous visit to a local coffee shop or that long-awaited vacation is “really worth it.”

None of these sacrifices is prohibitively onerous on its own. But some, such as the requirement for children to wear masks for much of the day, do significantly decrease the quality of life. And together they create a deep sense of societal malaise.

Accepting restrictions that weaken our social ties when they seemed temporary was one thing. Putting up with them indefinitely is quite another. For many, the sense that we will live in pandemic purgatory for months or years to come now poses a heavy psychological burden.

This makes defining a clear end point to the pandemic posture all the more important. How much longer will the restrictions on everyday life drag on? What purpose do they still serve?

In March 2020, the goal of social distancing was to eradicate COVID. At the time, public-health officials hoped that a test-trace-and-isolate regime might stop all cases of community transmission. As cases skyrocketed and hospitals came under strain, the justification for social distancing shifted. It was now meant to ensure that those who were the most sick could continue to receive high-quality medical care. The new goal was to “flatten the curve.”

Neither of these goals applies today. No one in a position of authority believes that we’re about to “defeat” the virus. COVID zero is not attainable. Nor are hospitals in imminent danger of collapse. Even at the height of the Omicron wave, some hospitals were strained but emergency rooms generally continued to provide quality care.

Some future COVID variant may prove much more dangerous than Omicron to the functioning of society. If a return to social-distancing measures should once again prove necessary, I’ll be among the first to say so. But at this point, the restrictions still shaping everyday life in America have become unnecessary. It is time to draw the logical inference—and end our pandemic purgatory.

By this I mean that we should lift all remaining restrictions on everyday activities (which were, in any case, unable to prevent the rapid circulation of Omicron cases this winter). Children should be allowed to take off their mask in school. We should get rid of measures such as deep cleaning that are purely performative. Politicians and public-health officials should send the message that Americans should no longer limit their social activities, encouraging them to resume playdates and dinner parties without guilt.

If the benefits of a full reopening are obvious, what are the downsides?

For those who are fully vaccinated, the risk from COVID has fallen dramatically. From October to November, 7.8 out of 100,000 unvaccinated Americans died from COVID every week, according to the CDC. During the same period, 0.6 out of 100,000 vaccinated Americans died from the disease every week. Among Americans who were also boosted, only 0.1 out of 100,000 did.

In addition to vaccines, we now have the antiviral drug Paxlovid, which, according to clinical trials, cuts down hospitalizations or deaths from COVID by nearly nine-tenths. Although it was approved too late to help most patients during the worst of the Omicron surge, it should soon become a more widely available tool.

The strongest reason to keep up pandemic restrictions is that some people remain vulnerable. Those who are unvaccinated, for example, remain at significant risk. What do we owe to them?

Our current attitude toward the unvaccinated makes little sense. Even as we heap scorn on the unvaccinated, we make sacrifices on their behalf. The unvaccinated are subject to immense pressure and moral indignation. Governments and private institutions are doing what they can to make their everyday lives difficult. A number of people, including anonymous commentators on Reddit and columnists at the Los Angeles Times, even engage in open schadenfreude when anti-vaxxers die from COVID. This is wrong. We owe every victim of this pandemic compassion, whatever risk they may have chosen to incur.

At the same time, the unvaccinated are, implicitly, the main justification for ongoing restrictions—in that the pro-restriction camp points to the persistently high death toll from COVID-19 and these deaths are heavily concentrated among the unvaccinated. That attitude is also wrong. We need not put our lives on hold for the indefinite future because others have decided to risk theirs. And since social restrictions are strictest in those parts of the country where most people are vaccinated, they are unlikely to help those who are most in need of protection. Wearing a mask in highly vaccinated New York does little to save an unmasked person in barely vaccinated Mississippi.

The unvaccinated are not the only vulnerable group. Immunocompromised people and the elderly remain in significant danger through no fault of their own. Even young, healthy people may continue to suffer from symptoms such as persistent fatigue long after they recover from a COVID infection.

Worldwide spread of the coronavirus will likely continue to result in serious suffering for years to come. That’s tragic. But it is not a sufficient reason to permanently change our society in ways that make it less free, sociable, and joyous.

Just as we are willing to take on calculated risks in other areas of life, so we should be willing to tolerate some risk of infectious disease. When you set out to drive across the country, you know that you could get into an accident. You might get hurt, and so might another driver, or even a child crossing the road. But that does not create a moral obligation to stay put for the rest of your life.

Because COVID will likely remain endemic for the foreseeable future, delaying a return to normal life until the risk it poses has been completely eliminated simply is not a realistic plan.

The risk posed by bacteria and viruses remains much lower today than it was for the majority of human history. In the America of 1900, for example, nearly 1 percent of people died from infectious diseases every year, about an order of magnitude higher than today. And yet Americans exposed to such dangers chose to engage in a full social life, judging that the risk of pestilence—however serious—did not justify forgoing human connection.

If no one ever went out to a restaurant or threw a party again, we’d slow the spread of COVID as well as that of plenty of other infectious diseases. But that would be a cure worse than the disease. Like our ancestors, we should prioritize the living of life over the minimizing of mortality.

Let’s drop the remaining restrictions on our everyday lives. Let’s shake off the pandemic malaise. Open everything.