The data is clear: Getting vaccinated allows people to resume many aspects of regular life. And yet many leaders who staunchly support following the science are still behaving much in the same way as they have been throughout the pandemic. President Joe Biden wears a mask in photographs even when he’s far away from other people. Anthony Fauci has said that indoor dining is still off the, uh, table for him. The crowd at Biden’s congressional address last week was sparse and distanced, despite the fact that the politicians present were among the first people to be vaccinated in the country. “If I didn’t know better, I would have thought this was six months ago,” emergency physician Leana Wen wrote in the Washington Post, explaining that the speech would have been the perfect time to show off the majesty of the vaccines at work (as well as the importance of limiting some spaces to vaccinated folks only).
Now, it’s an understandably tough ask to expect a high-stakes national event to be on the cutting edge of post-vaccination guidelines. But we do need visible government officials who have spent the pandemic being appropriately cautious to continue to follow the science—namely, walking around outside with a bare face, hanging out with friends and colleagues who have also been vaccinated, and even grabbing a drink at an indoor bar.
And I know just the person for the job: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Now, I don’t know anything about Mayor Pete’s medical records, or if he’s feeling particularly nervous about things returning to normal, so consider this more of a nomination than a demand. Buttigieg is a leader who is young, has no other outwardly apparent risk factors for COVID-19, and is half of a strapping couple that together volunteered their faces back in January to the cause of double masking. Who better to signal that following safety rules is about science, not politics?
Just think of some of the scenes that could proliferate on cable news and social media: Pete shaking hands with the (also vaccinated!) second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, instead of elbow bumping. Pete walking along the Tidal Basin with a mask peeking out of his jacket pocket. Pete toasting with a toothy smile at a local restaurant on a trip to Pittsburgh. Pete and Jennifer Granholm having an extended conversation at the dog park! Pete biking to a Cabinet meeting with a bare face! Pete getting a pedicure! Pete at the gym! Such public outings would not only potentially inspire more people to get vaccinated. They would help model a way of easing out of the exhausting mode of being as careful as possible, all the time, to protect ourselves from a deadly virus. It’s a mode that can be hard to break out of, even if we want to, after doing it for so long.
It makes sense that many people are continuing to stay extra cautious, even once they are vaccinated. The pandemic has been—and is still—a horrifying and traumatizing experience that has killed an incomprehensible number of Americans. Some people just prefer to wait a bit longer before they start hugging friends. And taking it slow is particularly understandable for those that are in high-risk groups or have riskier jobs—like Fauci and Biden. (Some people just like defaulting to masking!) The thing about our situation is that it is increasingly nuanced: A vaccinated Biden can model one form of appropriate caution, even as a vaccinated Buttigieg can model another. And, for all the excitement about hot vax summer, we do still need caution—only one-third of the population is fully vaccinated, and there are still tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day.
And yet it is also true that we are not going to get out of the pandemic because a slice of the population is continuing to be very, very, careful. Nor is the continued masking of Democratic leadership going to suddenly convince anti-maskers to start covering their faces. We are going to get out of the pandemic because people get vaccinated—including, ideally, a lot of people who are still on the fence about doing so. Hopefully, more people will get vaccinated if getting vaccinated is clearly associated with, and universally acknowledged to allow, such things as “standing close to people,” “taking your mask off,” and maybe “drinking in a bar.” (We know that politicians modeling behavior works—just look at how successful Donald Trump was at polarizing the issue of something as simple as wearing a mask.) I also think having that connection clearly made by leaders will be a psychological relief for many of us who are already vaccinated. The science, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that behaviors that were once risky are possible for vaccinated folks to do safely in many, many cases—so many more cases than for the past year.
What this brave new kind of post-vaccinated behavior now needs is a champion. And Pete Buttigieg—or another similarly profiled prominent figure—is ripe for the part. Dr. Fauci has actually been changing his behavior: In the same interview in which he said he would not yet dine indoors, he noted that he’s been socializing with vaccinated friends inside, sans masks. Maybe what we need then is for the man to document some of his mRNA-fueled partying on an Instagram account. Just as Democrats have gamely followed the science by masking up and staying distanced from one another, it’s time for them to start modeling low-risk reopening behaviors, too. Especially where we can see them.