This spring and summer has been decidedly not that fun for the vast majority of us. If you’re trying to follow the guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you’re limiting contact with individuals outside your household, being mindful of the essentials you need for safe, socially-distanced supply runs and generally trying to keep your household germ free and prevent spreading any germs you might’ve already picked up to others. And, by nature of keeping all of that information in your head (on top of the work, life, childcare responsibilities that already weigh you down), your mental health is very likely not at its best either.
Yet, as parts of the country are “opening up” or attempting to “go back” to school or work — allowing (and promptly saying “never mind” and postponing in many cases) indoor dining — and loosening restrictions, Instagram has become the place you can spot a whole lot of people who are opting to believe the pandemic is over. At least for them personally. There’s posed photos of “cheers” drinks at brunch spots (often with unmasked smiles despite fully masked wait-staff — red flag!) and, as the weather for fireworks, pool parties and barbecues closed in, there were people laying out with friends and family (certainly outside their immediate bubble they’ve been quarantining with) on boats, on decks, in backyard parties. And, despite warnings and scoldings, there’s been a lot of people heading out to crowded parties anyway. There are the photos labelled as “socially distanced” celebrations with people cheek to cheek with masks around their noses, chins or no masks in sight — moments that would hardly look out of place pre-pandemic.
These carefully staged photos can communicate a lot about the summer everyone wishes they were having. Something fun and lighthearted and joyful in the alternate universe where more than 187,000 people (friends, neighbors, family, strangers) haven’t died from a virus we don’t have a vaccine for and are far off from fully understanding.
And for me — someone who is at home taking care of a cancer patient/at-risk mother with my anxiety-ridden and terrified siblings nearby (who have had to make difficult decisions about whether they can “risk” returning to their day jobs) still wiping down every grocery that enters our house while not seeing our friends and loved ones beyond a few parking lot meet-ups with zero contact) — it’s a disheartening sight.
The nature of this disease has not changed, the longterm effects of what it does to different bodies as it moves through them has only gotten more alarming. What we do know (or at least what experts believe so far with the limited data we have), according to The UK National Health Service is that nearly half (45 percent) of COVID-19 patients who need to be hospitalized need ongoing medical care, 4 percent requiring inpatient rehab and 1 percent requiring permanent care — with the possibility of there being a number of people experiencing longterm damage with no full recovery possible. There’s studies trickling in about the effects the virus has on people’s hearts (with studies discussing odds of longterm and permanent cardiovascular damage), the multi-system inflammation syndrome similar to Kawasaki disease affecting children that is believed to be related to the virus and possible fertility/testicular damage in men (who are also experiencing higher mortality rates), among others.
Plus there’s the general “over it”-ness of a large amount of Americans leading to simple face coverings being a culture war “personal freedom” matter rather than a simple “this keeps your fellow citizens and you safe” measure that makes each outing feel all the more threatening (will this be the day someone aggressively coughs on you while you’re trying to pick up a prescription or some milk?)
Particularly among young and able-bodied people who internalized the earliest narratives about who this virus hits hardest (though not in a way that’s meaningful), it almost makes sense that that they believe they’re not personally going to experience the worst possible outcomes. However, it’s important to understand that each careless move (no matter how earnestly you believe you’re just calculating your own personal risk) ups the risks for others. Your brunch or dining experience (even outdoors) puts the workers and their families in contact with more chances to be exposed to the virus; your backyard party with your friends from out of state means that they too can expose or be exposed and cart germs back and forth (to the grocery store, the gas pump, the inevitable spots that even the vulnerable, hyper-vigilant individuals can’t avoid).
It’s all a gamble. And particularly for those of us who are privileged enough to have work that lets us stay home, choosing to be “over” the social distance rules and to be “done” with the caution is a gamble with your own health but also with the health of others.
(It is worth noting there are people who are going out and protesting against police violence right now (wearing masks and being responsible at every opportunity) which in the grand scheme is a more valid and important reason to take a risk than fireworks and grilling — don’t @ me.)
This feels like a big finger-waggy moment and I hate it (as a health editor and a human being who wants nothing more than to lay in a cuddle-puddle pile of my nearest and dearest ones). The fatigue people are experiencing (plus the mental health strain) of being at home and attempting to balance work (or unemployment and economic distress), childcare and all the other parts of life while living in isolation during these extraordinary and dangerous times is nothing to scoff at. We’re social creatures that need each other (particularly in times of tragedy). But whether it’s for the ‘gram, a long weekend or the fleeting feeling that everything isn’t deeply wrong/not okay, there’s just no calculated risk that adds up from a public health perspective and no version of the story that doesn’t feel at-best deeply dystopian or at-worst cruel and selfish.
There will (hopefully) be a time to celebrate in the near future, but don’t risk your health and the health of others in some misguided effort to perform “normal” in a deeply abnormal time.
A version of this story was published July 2020.
Before you go, here’s the best and most affordable mental health apps for you and your family to try: