Call it what you want to—Hot Vax Summer 2.0, the Hot Vax Summer Redux—but you might be feeling it: A new phase of the pandemic is starting. With restrictions in the most COVID-cautious U.S. jurisdictions lifting, international travel picking back up, and large live events returning to American cities, the summer of 2022 stands ready to deliver some version of normalcy even if (when?) a new variant emerges. Millions of Americans can’t wait.
Though certain Republican-led states such as Florida dropped all their restrictions in the fall of 2020, blue-state governors in the Northeast rolled out their plans to end restrictions in early February of this year. California and New York followed suit, and by this month, the CDC caught up. Now more than 90 percent of Americans live in places where indoor masking isn’t required—and people like CDC Director Rochelle Walensky feel confident enough to advise Americans to “put your masks in a drawer, anticipate you may need them again and hope that we don’t.”
Daily caseloads have fallen dramatically in cities hit hard by Omicron, including New York (down 98 percent from its peak in early January), Los Angeles (down 98 percent), and Washington, D.C. (down 99 percent). “While the much-hyped ‘hot vax summer’ of 2021 famously did not materialize … maybe this time we can enjoy a ‘hot vax spring,’” Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner and a vocal critic of continuing restrictions, wrote in an op-ed last month.
That spring is starting. The Super Bowl was as packed as ever this year; Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa are touring again. Half of Americans say their credit-card spending habits are back to pre-pandemic levels. The International Air Travel Association expects overall global air travel to return to 83 percent of pre-pandemic levels this year, and to recover to 94 percent of pre-crisis levels in the United States. Dating-app executives are again talking about the chance for a “summer of love,” and living with the virus is the new phrase of the day.
But we’ve been here before, and hearing someone say Omicron might be “the last real large surge from SARS-CoV-2” triggers flashbacks to the hot vax summer that wasn’t. Almost a year ago, states ramped up their use of mass-vaccination sites and began to widen vaccine eligibility based on age and risk factors. As the most vaccine-keen Americans scrambled to find a jab, hype began to build for a COVID-free summer. You might remember the memes (Megan Thee Stallion’s 2019 song “Hot Girl Summer” turned into “shot girl summer”), the mantras (“vaxxed and waxed”), and the references to the Roaring ’20s. Then came May, when the CDC decided enough people had been vaccinated and viral transmission was low enough for immunized people to drop their masks.
Of course, the Delta variant spoiled the fun just after the Fourth of July. But according to a recent Atlantic/Leger poll, Hot Vax Summer 1.0 might not have been as bad as people remember—and Americans seem optimistic about their chance to do summer even better this year. A majority of Americans polled early last month reported that last summer lived up to some or all of their expectations. This opinion was strongest in the most cautious people—those vaccinated and boosted—among whom 61 percent remembered hot vax summer favorably. These people are also looking forward to even more frequent indoor dining, partying, and socializing; more than 40 percent plan to travel domestically.
Tina Castillo counts herself among this cohort. Triple-vaxxed and exhausted by pandemic restrictions, the 31-year-old remembers beach trips with friends, secluded Airbnb stays, and nights out at rooftop bars in the summer of 2021. “It was fun, but it’s nothing like what I’m doing this summer,” she told me. Her job is sending her to Germany in the spring, and her friends are planning a June trip to London to see Elton John perform in Hyde Park. She knows she’ll have to be more extroverted to make new friends in a new country, and is planning on starting with outdoor lunches before venturing into German nightlife.
She also remembers the confusion of December 2021. As government officials were talking about the possibility of a new coronavirus surge and news reports were tossing out word of a new variant, she wondered if the virus that cut short her summer hopes would spoil her holiday trip to Costa Rica. Castillo had planned to ring in the New Year abroad—she hadn’t traveled internationally since the pandemic began and had assembled an itinerary while there was still hope that the pandemic would end by Independence Day. Then, just about everyone seemed to get COVID.
She weighed the risk, debated staying home, and decided to go on her trip anyway. Since she worked in a health-care facility and saw patients frequently, she’d been testing herself regularly. A few more tests wouldn’t be an inconvenience. She took one before entering Costa Rica and another before returning to the D.C. suburbs. All was well, and she remains COVID-free.
The summer’s appeal is even stronger for young people who feel they’ve missed out on big moments of early adulthood. Andrew, a 24-year-old living in Brooklyn, told me that he’s quitting his production-assistant job this summer and traveling across France, Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom with a group of high-school friends. (He asked me to use his first name only because his company doesn’t know he’s planning to quit). “It’s like the trip we had wanted to do postcollege in a world without COVID, and it’s been delayed ’til now. We’re all excited to quit our first jobs out of college, pack up and move out of New York City, and travel around Europe all summer,” he said. “I turn 25 in August, so I’m sort of like, Really, this is my shot.”
Andrew’s core pandemic year was isolating: He finished college remotely, waited tables, and freelanced for most of 2020 while the job market was still chaotic. Life improved in 2021. He was able to travel to the U.K. for his sister’s wedding in the summer, quarantined before seeing his parents for Christmas, and returned to a New Year’s party during peak Omicron. This year, he doesn’t know what will come after his Europe trip—he’s saved up money and might move to Los Angeles or pick somewhere in Western Europe, but he’s welcoming the uncertainty. “Graduating into COVID was such a scramble, like, I need to find a job. I need to find some stability. And now I feel like I’m at a place where I’m confident in kind of rejecting that stability, and confident I’ll be able to find another opportunity,” he said.
Willingness to take risks is the thread that tied together my conversations with young people eager for a return to “normal.” They acknowledged the degree of privilege inherent in being able to make these moves—and in being healthy and well after two years of life with a deadly disease. These people have developed individualized ways to examine risk and determine COVID’s threat in the vacuum of clear public-health messaging and government guidance. In the U.S., more than 1,500 people are still dying of the virus every day. But to many young people, it seems like everyone they know who’s their age has been sick with the virus but bounced back a few days later. The pandemic might not be over—it’s certainly not for immunocompromised people, kids under 5 years old, elderly folks, and people who remain unvaccinated—but for the majority of people on an individual level, it is.
When we spoke, Castillo had just returned from another trip, this time to a secluded resort in Guatemala. Before she moves to Germany, she has one more D.C. event scheduled—the Puerto Rican rapper and singer Bad Bunny’s El Último Tour del Mundo, “The Last Tour of the World.” She bought the tickets as the first hot vax summer was starting. She’ll now be attending as the second takes off.