I’ve been traveling a lot lately and here’s what I’ve noticed about America’s current response to COVID-19: It’s all over the map.
On the streets of New York, I saw people riding bicycles in masks, and I was asked to show a vaccination card before sitting down in a restaurant. At the famous St. Louis Arch, I saw people posing side by side for photos, no masks anywhere. In a library talk in Connecticut, people in clusters, socially distant, put on masks. At an event in Ohio, every seat next to each other was full, distance didn’t matter.
I’ve been to hotels where clerks are still behind glass, and restaurants where the waiters lean in unmasked to take your order. There are workplaces that meet the Biden administration’s mandate that everyone should be vaccinated, and there are workplaces that challenge this. Many large offices warn: no shot, no job; some small offices say come in, we’re taking a chance.
In other words, COVID-19 practices, policies and attitudes all depend on where you go, what you do, and who you do it with. There is no predominant national approach. No size fits all. And there probably won’t be another.
So the question is, as Captain America once asked his fellow Avengers:
“Are we done here?”
Comfortable with coronavirus
When will the COVID-19 plague be over? At what point does the crisis turn into something else we have to deal with, such as the flu, drunk drivers, food poisoning or the risk of robberies?
This question has been postulated by various media lately. Of the many I’ve read, the most notable quote comes from an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who, when asked by the Washington Post when the pandemic would end, said, “It’s not going to end. We just stop caring.”
“Acceptable losses.” I wrote last year that that sentence would ultimately determine the duration of this pandemic. It still applies today. What are we willing to risk? What are we willing to lose?
Most people seem to have made up their mind. Many are no longer hiding. They go to malls, to churches. I just bought tickets to the Rolling Stones concert at Ford Field and there weren’t many left – and that place seats over 60,000 people! Last year, the idea of a rock concert of this magnitude would have been unthinkable.
But people can read. The numbers are there. The fact is that the chances of dying from COVID-19 have always been extremely slim for most parts of the population. The chance of dying from COVID-19 now, if fully vaccinated, is extremely slim for ALL segments of the population. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation in July showed that — despite hand-wringing over “breakthrough cases” — the death rate among fully vaccinated people was “effectively zero (0.00%), in all but two reporting states, Arkansas and Michigan, where they were 0.01%.”
How much smaller does it get?
Back to normal? We may already be there
So statistically, the U.S. adult public’s vaccinated drink — which the White House says is 70%, even those who have natural immunity to having the virus — seems like the doorknob of a return to normal life.
Then why doesn’t it feel that way? Why does it feel like the weather forecast says sunny, but the sky looks dark and full of rain?
The world looks different now, not so much because of the dangers of the disease as because of its consequences. Your favorite restaurant now closes at 7pm because it can’t find help. That boutique you loved so much has gone out of business. That government office you need to visit still won’t accept face-to-face appointments. Your dental hygienist still dresses like a biohazard worker.
We continue to wait for a backwash to signal that all is well. Here’s the bad news. That rewind may never come. The world is under no obligation to return to the look of 2019.
“Normal” is admittedly shorter evening hours, longer waiting times, half-empty office buildings and people with masks here, there, but not everywhere. Normally, masks can mean permanent in courtrooms or on airplanes (although I’m not sure why a quiet, air-circulated environment requires face coverings, but some concert halls, where people scream and sing for hours, don’t).
Ignoring the risk doesn’t make it go away
We must stop waiting for the world to return if we intend to return to the world. In some countries it has always been normal to wear masks due to concerns about the spread of germs. It will probably be normal in America now too. Showing vaccine cards may be a permanent habit to enter certain facilities – just as showing an ID card is now.
These things do not define normality. Normality comes when you factor in all the craziness, and then still do what you set out to do. People always knew that a severe case of the flu could hospitalize them or even kill them. It didn’t stop them from living. A drunk driver or a speeding motorist can always cost you your life. It didn’t stop you from driving.
COVID-19 will be like this. It’s out there. It will stay out there. Regular shots will likely be required to ensure protection. But when you put certain basics of life on one scale — socializing, working, traveling, embracing — and putting the concerns of COVID-19 on the other, more and more people are moving on the side of acceptable risk.
So don’t expect a D-Day headline announcing that the coronavirus has been defeated. Like many American problems, it will mostly diminish through neglect.
“We’ll just stop it,” said the epidemiologist.
Or maybe we already have.
Please contact Mitch Albom: [email protected] Check out the latest updates on his charities, books, and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast on demand every Monday and Thursday from Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlbom.