As more and more people become vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus — in California alone, 34% have received at least one dose and nearly 20% have had a second shot — what happens next seems both clear and contradictory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say you can “visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.” They also say the vaccinated should “continue to … take precautions in public like wearing a well-fitted mask and physical distancing.”
The paradox is unnerving, not least because nationwide, COVID-19 cases are back on the rise after having declined to record lows. In part, this is because of variants such as the more transmissible, and lethal, B.1.1.7. The loosening of restrictions, including mask mandates in many states and our own very real collective pandemic fatigue, isn't helping matters.
I’m as fatigued as anyone. It’s been more than a year that I have spent mostly indoors. And paradox or no paradox, I am beginning to plan a trip east to visit my parents, both of whom are in their 80s. I haven’t seen them since December 2019.
Still — and even as California plans to open fully as of June 15 — I remain wary of reemerging too fast or too completely. And I am not alone. According to a report issued last month by the American Psychological Assn., 49% of Americans “feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends.” This is true for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Even more telling, 46% “do not feel comfortable” returning to life as we lived it before.
Maybe we’ve forgotten how to be together or at least lost some of our taste for it. I know I have. Certainly, all these long months of social distance and Zooming have changed our notions of what community and fellowship means. It’s altered our sense of how time progresses, and whether it will ever be worth it again to spend hours commuting from place to place.
At the same time, isolation is a fiction. Has anyone, really, been absent, able to hide out from events? Together if apart, we’ve shared in all kinds of losses, shocks and highs. The killing of George Floyd and the summer of protests, the 2020 election, the attempted insurrection and the restoration, the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes.
We know the world keeps going, however removed we are. I see it every morning when I walk. Often I wander Mid-Wilshire, where subway construction progresses, where most of LACMA has disappeared and a new high-rise apartment complex has gone up.
None of us, in other words, is a Rip van Winkle, waking to a landscape reconfigured as we dreamt. Not least because more than a third of us acknowledge having trouble sleeping — 35%, according to that same American Psychological Assn. report.
Nonetheless, like Rip, we face the challenge of coming back to a changed reality, the abnormal normal, the new normal.
As I receive more messages about reconnecting, I want to think about how I choose to spend my time. Among the benefits of lockdown is how it strips away obligatory get-togethers. This meeting or that cup of coffee, the dinner I had no desire to attend. I want to reemerge on my terms, to preserve the smallness, the intimacy, of my pandemic isolation. I want to preserve the space I’ve created for myself. A simpler life, if I can keep it that way.
At some point — a year from now, or five, whenever we reach herd immunity — I may not be so adamant. At the moment, though, it’s feels right to assert the control I have, to use the in-between, the space before what will come. I want to move at my own pace, to be conscious about how and when I reintegrate.
Last weekend, our son stopped by to see my wife and me for dinner. Because none of us were two full weeks past the last COVID shot, we sat, as we have for the last year, masked and distanced on the porch. Still, I recognized it as the start of something, and the end of something else. The next time we’re together, we will be unmasked and indoors.
I am excited, and also trepidatious. And why not? This is where we are, on the cusp of a future that still seems impossible to imagine, just as it would have once been impossible to imagine where we’ve lately been.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.