I thought the first two months were hard. Then I looked at texts from family members who are worn out by quarantine and have decided to book an out-of-state vacation at the end of May. They’re taking precautions and they feel like things are going to improve soon, so why not plan a much-wanted escape?
They’re not the only ones. It’s a bitter pill for the sulky but righteous folks still staying at home, watching reports that confirm COVID-19 continues to spread in communities across the country, killing thousands of people every day and infecting millions.
Nosy from home
As we wish more and more for the pandemic to subside in the US, regardless of evidence that it’s not subsiding, we have never been so simultaneously isolated and up in each other’s business.
Rationalizations for ending lockdown abound. One exasperated friend of mine remarked that her mother has decided it’s safe to resume roaming in Florida, because she heard that sunlight kills the virus. I asked my friends and followers on social media about these tensions and got a flood of responses.
One friend is incensed by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning housemates flouting stay-at-home orders, “basically doing whatever they want whenever they want.”
“I have family wondering how they can go quarantine at the North Carolina shore,” said another. They’re in a rural part of the country with relatively few infections, so “I’m not sure why they’d risk leaving that!”
“I’m surrounded by people still going on vacation despite everything and it’s mind boggling,” added another.
Is it time to travel?
The Centers for Disease Control tackles a host of questions about traveling right now. Can I take a road trip? Can I get on a flight? Can I ride a train? Can I stay in a hotel? Can I go camping? Can I visit my friends?
Each answer begins the same way: “CDC recommends you stay home as much as possible and avoid close contact, especially if you are at higher risk of severe illness. If you must travel…”
What does “must travel” mean? According to the CDC, it’s “travel to provide medical or home care to others,” or “travel necessary for a job considered an essential service.”
Wait, let me check the essential travel list again to be sure. Damn. Sorry. As of this writing, vacationing isn’t on it.
I get it. I canceled my own long-awaited vacation in late March, tearful with disappointment. I’m not rescheduling it yet. I went to visit a friend in the neighborhood last week, sitting masked on adjacent stoops several feet apart outside her place. Mid-sentence, I bent over and moaned.
“What is it? Are you OK?” she demanded.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I just suddenly remembered when you and I used to be able to go for dim sum.” My longing for those days is like a physical pain. It’s tantalizing to think that governments are gearing up to let us go out with our friends again—not to mention the relief of a restarted economy.
A substantial May 7 read from the Atlantic explores what you should do as states and cities reopen for business before COVID is contained, treatable, or preventable. It’s basically 15 minutes of describing routine human scenarios like dates or worshiping or barbecues, followed by some version of “when you are doing this, wear a mask and stay six feet apart, you dingbats.”
As cities like Philly enter month three of lockdown and summer looms, those who’ve had the privilege of sheltering in place are going to start calculating the risks of rolling back quarantine (even though Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order has been extended to June 4). It could be a family visit. A trip to the beach. A backyard party. Isolation takes a serious mental toll, and we have to be able to talk about making it bearable without screaming “COVIDIOT” at each other. As the Atlantic also points out, abstinence-only education doesn’t work, and simply decreeing that everyone stay home 100 percent of the time isn’t going to get us through this.
And like a lot of US sex education, information about COVID has been wildly inconsistent. Whether it’s because of the inane flailing of our president or the fact that the science of the novel coronavirus is expanding every day, it’s hard to figure out the safest thing to do. Orders to stay home descended without clarity about what that actually means, and without understanding of what activities actually place us at high risk of infection. With so many people lacking critical knowledge, it’s no wonder we’re getting restless and arguing about what’s safe to do.
We’ll be making decisions for ourselves—and worrying when others’ choices counteract our own. Until there’s credible evidence that COVID-19 infections in the US are permanently on the wane, seeing people dine out and take vacations will double my pandemic anxiety—something I didn’t realize was possible a month ago. All I can do is urge my loved ones to postpone their travels for now.
“The rage and stress are going to give me an ulcer,” said a friend, who’s fed up with in-laws who disregard ongoing stay-at-home guidelines. “Quarantining makes me feel like I’m in control of a relatively uncontrollable situation, but I still find all the other stresses: health, work, finances, and protecting my nearest and dearest, to be overwhelming,” she said.
That inability to protect people who choose to resume something like normal life in the coming weeks and months will weigh heavy on a lot of us, especially since a significant percentage of those who catch and spread COVID-19 have no symptoms themselves. We’re looking at some hard conversations. Everyone who shakes off social-distancing guidelines before the virus is contained will join a nationwide domino effect toward even more widespread infections—and deaths. As more of us end our quarantine, more of us will be tempted to join in, no matter what the science says.
And the really tough part of this will begin.