Life

What It’s Like to Turn 21 When All the Bars Are Closed

“I don’t even think I drank alcohol. I just ate strawberry shortcake.”

A diptych showing a woman smiling at her computer with a wine glass on one side, and a crowded club on the other. A small birthday cupcake is in between both images.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

For the vast majority of not-yet-21-year-olds, the 21st birthday holds a mythical allure, the promise of legal alcohol and long nights spent with friends at the bar. Sure, most newly minted adults can’t afford to move out of their parents’ homeget married, or even graduate college without crippling student loan debt, but in many ways, the 21st brings with it the type of life-altering opportunities that other major birthdays simply don’t, however hard they try. (Sorry, sweet 16s.)

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That is, of course, for folks who didn’t have the misfortune of spending their 21st in quarantine during the first waves of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Those who did experienced a much different milestone, one forged awkwardly at the intersection of living through your first plague, often at home with parents or other family members, while awaiting the joys of graduating into an economic crisis from which the recovery is skewed toward billionaires and corporations. To put it simply, for those who turned 21 in the past year and a half, 21st birthdays just didn’t feel like 21st birthdays.

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“I was going to be happy showing my ID, being like, ‘I’m 21, I can do whatever I want now’ and feel like a real adult, but everything was closed,” said Draylon, a senior at Texas A&M University who had his birthday in the summer of 2020. “Turning 21 wasn’t really a thing. It was just like, ‘Ah, I’m one year older.’ ”

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Rather than go through with his original plan to invite all his friends to the club for his first-ever birthday party (the result of having a summer birthday), Draylon, who goes by the name DJ Quick, rang in his 21st with a few friends he had over—which he said was fun, but a far cry from the rager he had planned.

And for Maija, a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, even the feeling of being one year older was lost to the pandemic. “The period between 20 and 22 didn’t happen. 21 is supposed to be a really goofy, irresponsible year, and that just didn’t happen,” she said. “I feel like I just jumped from 20 to 22.”

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Maija was studying abroad in Argentina in March of 2020, and her plan for her 21st had been to visit a best friend studying in Rio de Janeiro for a “crazy night” of dancing and drinking. But come March, her program shut down, and she was sent back home to her hometown in rural Minnesota. She celebrated her birthday with her dog and her mom. “It was actually really sweet, like, I had a good day, but it wasn’t going out or going crazy,” she said. “I don’t even think I drank alcohol. I just ate strawberry shortcake.” She didn’t go on her first legal bar outing until almost a full month after turning 22.

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But while no one’s 21st went exactly as planned, widespread eligibility for vaccines in the U.S., and even a brief reprieve from mask mandates, meant that many young people who celebrated Covid-21sts started looking to their 22nd for redemption. Of course, now those plans are colliding with yet another obstacle—the delta variant.

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“I’m having my 21st birthday party this year, COVID ruined my shii,” Draylon tweeted earlier in June, as venues and entire states got closer to a full reopening, after nearly an entire year of his being 21.

The plan for his upcoming 22nd includes renting out an entire venue to throw the huge party he wasn’t able to throw last summer, complete with “21” decorations (with the “1” crossed out and replaced by a “2”), a themed dress code, and photographer hired to capture the night of  partying. “I just want to have a good time. I want to have a movie. I want to feel like they’re like a superstar, you know what I mean?” he said. Even as coronavirus cases are on the rise due to the spread of delta, Draylon says “everything is going according to plan,” and he plans to have a birthday concert at the club he works at. (The Provincetown outbreak that prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new mask guidance demonstrated that though breakthrough infections are a concern, the vaccine is still very good at preventing severe outcomes from the disease.)

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Harrison, a rising junior at Harvard University, also plans to ring in his 22nd with the parties he never got to host as a 21-year-old living far away from campus in northern California. For years leading up to his 21st, Harrison had known that his birthday would land on a Saturday, which would have made it the ideal day for going out—if not for the fact that it also landed on the day with the single-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. His January birthday meant that he was able to escape home for a bit to go skiing with his then-girlfriend an hour away from home in Nevada, where, much to his disappointment, no one asked him for his ID when he tried to buy alcohol.

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When he returns to campus for fall semester, Harrison plans to pursue some of the birthday festivities he and his friends had to miss out on. “Once we get back, [my friends and I] are talking about like, ‘We need to get our friends back together again. We need to have everyone’s 21sts, just cram them all together … and just have a party for the sake of having a party,’” he said.

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Still, Harrison acknowledged that the delta variant might make things dicier. “At this point, we will just have to play it by ear and see what happens,” he said. “We have waited almost a year to celebrate together. If we have to wait a few months until cases drop to go out to a bar together, that’s alright with me.”

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For the spring and summer babies who had both their 21st and 22nd birthdays the pandemic, the milestone represented a step forward as well. Chris, a recent Tufts University graduate, described getting his second shot on his 22nd birthday as “poetic.” That is, until the side effects started to hit later that night. “There were like a few little hiccups, or things that were less than ideal but … it is kind of full circle,” he said, adding that spending the next day driving through Maine with his friends “was the most life had felt real and fun and good in a very long time.”

And many of the young people I spoke to pointed out that a missed birthday isn’t that big of a deal. “All things considered, it’s kind of tough to be too down on it because we were also fortunate … especially during the height pandemic,” Harrison said. “It’s hard to kind of look at those numbers of the pandemic … and be like, ‘Wow, sucks that I didn’t have a mythical 21st birthday.’ ”

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Those “mythical” birthdays instead became intimate gatherings or family outings for the first time in a year—especially during the span of weeks between vaccinations, and the advent of delta—many of them marked by the inexplicably powerful relief that comes from knowing you’re fully vaccinated. Cassandra, for example, said that while “it was just super disorienting to have a celebratory day when [the pandemic] was super uncertain,” small “things like going out and grabbing a drink with friends or going out for dinner with my boyfriend [felt] a lot bigger.”

In the coming weeks, many 21-year-olds will be going back to university campuses for the first time in a year, just as schools are also implementing new restrictions. So with the push and pull between post-vaccine reopening and the new reality of the delta variant, it looks like it’s almost time to celebrate—though maybe it’s not the moment for full-blown ragers quite yet. But then again, maybe it finally is time for shot skis and keg stands to take a back burner to more hygienic celebrations.

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