One night this week I was, briefly, in a crowded bar, where nearly everyone was maskless. Not a soul had a six-foot radius of space. People were eating and drinking. I had to push past some of them to get to the bathroom. This was not in red America, nor in rural Michigan, nor in Florida, but in Brooklyn, New York. The place that sounded like sirens in the early pandemic, the place where people religiously masked outside for more than a year and, to some extent, are still doing so even now.
Yes, pandemic “restrictions” are still present here. You have to wear a mask when you step into a shared hallway from your apartment, or risk neighbors shooting imaginary anger bolts at you, (Until recently I was that neighbor.) Offices tend to be either closed or have optional attendance. But you can go to IRL yoga. You can gather in groups. You can drink like it’s 2019.
And yet these specific liberties do not seem to be quite enough for some members of the pundit class. The New York Times’ The Daily podcast recently ran a two part-series titled “We Need to Talk About COVID.” In the first, Times journalist David Leonhardt made the case for vaccinated people returning to pre-pandemic “normal” life; in the second, Anthony Fauci held the line that it wasn’t time to loosen up yet, even as host Michael Barbaro kept pressing him on when and how and if it might be. In the Atlantic this week, Yascha Mounk argued that we should “Open Everything,” by which he mostly meant that public health officials should encourage us “to resume playdates and dinner parties without guilt.” Going to bars, this vibe goes, shouldn’t just be a possibility, as it is now. It should be recognized—encouraged?—as a fine thing to do by, I guess, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an institution that takes a precautionary stance against tasting raw cookie dough (which, yes, has risks).
This performance-y ask for permission played out in a more explicit form on a recent episode of Bari Weiss’ Honestly podcast, in an episode titled, “Bringing Sanity to the Omicron Chaos: Three Doctors Weigh In.” In it, the former Times opinion-section editor described a New Year’s Eve celebration in which she gathered with her sister, who was actively COVID positive. They sat at a distance and with windows open and air purifiers running. A friend’s mom read about this gathering on Weiss’s Substack, and was upset at her. Should I be reprimanded?, Weiss asked a panel of health experts. These doctors appear to have been booked for their loudly chill views on risk-taking in a public-health crisis (trust me, I interview, and edit, a lot of public health experts), so she got the answer she was looking for. But she didn’t actually need to ask it at all: We live in a society that has far fewer restrictions right now than Weiss’s hand-wringing on the episode implied, particularly when it comes to deciding who to host in your own home. What is harder to escape, especially if you publicly share tidbits from your life and then tune into the responses, as Weiss does, is a sense of shame. This dissonance between the actual rules and the perceived ones was very well-crystalized in a tweet from NBC reporter Ben Collins about Mounk’s piece: “I am begging you, from the bottom of my heart, to tell me what you think is closed.” Things are not really that closed right now; Fauci, who is not your mom, will just not say that you can attend them.
Though I, influenced by public health consensus, lean more cautious than the open-everything set, I understand this position of “we should all be graced with explicit permission to do more things” on a visceral level, and to some extent a logical one. In Spring 2021, I wrote a piece arguing for an end to outdoor mask mandates, outlining the strong evidence in favor of this being very, very safe. I understood that I could choose to defy the mandate, walk down my Brooklyn street bare-faced, and probably get away with it just fine. But what I wanted, on top of the particular feeling of easy breathing while I took a stroll, was the broader community to come to a science-based consensus that the “risk” in doing so was exceedingly minimal. I felt a deep desire to be part of the “collective” in “collective action,” which at the time in my area had settled on outdoor masking. Frankly, I also did not want to look like an asshole for not wearing a mask outside. I felt so strongly about this that, before the CDC’s own advice shifted, I mostly pulled my mask up when anyone walked past.
After getting a case of (probably) omicron (and being, therefore, probably very, very well protected from a repeat infection of the virus), I went to Florida, where attitudes toward the pandemic are far laxer than New York, beginning with face masks. I ate inside, I marveled at people’s mouths in Walmart. (I do not recommend getting omicron in order to feel OK doing these things, but this is what happened nonetheless.) I felt a deep sense of relief slipping into a world where the constant, constant, constant reminders of the virus just didn’t exist, where the virus circulated without much public fanfare, and the resulting horrors—2,000-some deaths a day, nationally—were kept tucked away in hospitals, the tragedy of the virus taking place in private and away from my senses. Returning to New York with all its masks felt stifling.
But what is also true about being back here is this: I am still allowed to make my own risk calculations, to do things according to the logic and needs of the people in my household. And there is plenty, plenty to do here. This fact is bizarre, if not outright disturbing: We’re still coming off of a wave of the virus that experts have noted again and again is a huge problem for hospitals, a wave that will be over relatively soon in the scheme of things. It would have made a lot of sense, for example, for states to implement some manner of mini-lockdowns during omicron to get things under control, as some experts proposed. But that didn’t happen, and it won’t happen. Vulnerable people will continue to suffer because of it. Instead of a cohesive plan to protect each other, we are left to our own calculations of personal risk and responsibility. We are now, we will be in the future, and whatever health advice officials like Fauci dispense will, by and large, not become rules of collective behavior, but simply remain factors in our own calculations. You and I—we are allowed to go to a bar.