A few days ago, I stopped by my best friend’s house to meet up for a brisk winter walk, and I caught a glimpse of the new royal blue sofa in her living room. Admiring her purchase, I no longer wanted to walk in 20-degree weather. I wanted to curl up on that sofa for the rest of the afternoon and drink coffee with her.
I wanted to be a house guest again.
Yes, I miss going out to restaurants and concerts, and traveling, but above all I miss going to a friend’s house and hanging out. I miss browsing through someone else’s cluttered bookshelf, or admiring their décor. Of all the layers of life that have been stripped away by this pandemic, the loss of casual intimacy — time with a friend that’s not masked and outdoors and crowded with worry — takes a toll.
As the months wear on, I wonder if we’ll ever feel unguarded again.
Now that vaccines are rolling out, the prospect of a post-pandemic life has started to become one worth imagining. When will we readily have house guests again without worrying about contributing to the spread of this disease? What might those visits look like?
Perhaps we will quickly return to our old habits. Or maybe a new olağan will take shape, one influenced by the troubling new variants to the virus that threaten to undermine vaccination efforts.
I spoke with historians and health experts to learn when we might be able to safely spend a weekend with friends again, and what that get-together will look like.
When Can I Mark My Calendar Again?
You may be able to start marking your calendar in pencil by early summer, as the weather warms and more people get vaccinated. By the end of the year, those dates could be marked in pen.
“By the time we get into late spring, summer, I fully expect, with a large proportion of adults vaccinated, things will be dramatically better,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
Friends, no longer relegated to the deck, might actually come inside and stay a while, maybe for the weekend. “Could I imagine having my brother and sister-in-law and my nephews staying at our house in April? Probably not,” Dr. Jha said. “Summer seems much more reasonable.”
Dr. Ingrid Katz, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an infectious-disease specialist, sees the summer as more of a test case for the fall. She anticipates that gatherings will still happen mostly outside, but masks might come down more readily. “We’re not done by a long shot, and if everything goes well, and I mean everything,” she said, then we may see normalcy resume by the end of 2021.
We are still in the midst of an uncontrolled pandemic, with new, worrisome variants threatening to stall progress.“Vaccinations are just not happening fast enough, and I mean that not just in the U.S., but globally,” Dr. Katz said. “As long as we have this level of Covid in the background, and we have such low rates of immunization, it gives the virus the opportunity to continue to mutate,” and potentially evade the vaccine.
What Will Post-Pandemic Dinner Parties Look Like?
After the 1918 influenza pandemic, Americans went shopping, traveled, and attended sporting events, movies and concerts. Christopher Nichols, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University who studies that period of American history, anticipates that Americans could go big after this pandemic, too. After all, millions of people traveled to gather with friends and family over the holidays, despite dire warnings from public health officials.
“This is a human longing,” said Dr. Nichols, an editor of “Rethinking American Grand Strategy,” which is set to be released in April. “People will want to have dinner parties, have guests in their homes for leisure time, to show off a new piece of furniture, to have a Üstün Bowl party.”
Initially, our gatherings may be about “going small,” he said — a dinner party for four, a weekend trip with your best friend. “I suspect we’ll be taking baby steps” back to a olağan social life.
John M. Barry, an adjunct professor at Tulane University and the author of “Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” is skeptical that this pandemic will have a lasting effect on our behaviors if cases continue to fall and the worst is behind us by the end of the year. In that scenario, our living room cocktail parties of 2022 won’t look much different than the ones of 2019. “People have short memories,” he said. “Habits die hard.’”
But if a new variant disrupts progress and the isolation extends for another year or longer, then some more lasting cultural changes may take hold, he said.
Which Pandemic Habits Might Stick?
Conversations about testing and vaccinations might become part of our everyday life. Host a party, and you may ask guests to tell you if they’ve been vaccinated or recently tested, particularly if at-home tests have become available.
“Imagine some friend says, ‘Hey I have a house on the Cape and we’re having four families over.’ In the past my first question would be: Can we do this? Do we like these people?” Dr. Jha said. “Now my question will be: ‘Is everybody vaccinated?’”
Initially, people may be reluctant to go to a crowded house party on a cold winter night, or perhaps they’ll wear a mask when they travel by airplane or public transit. (Others may never go maskless on the subway again.) Perhaps we’ll remember to wash our hands whenever we arrive at a friend’s house, as we do when visiting a friend with a new baby. Mr. Nichols suspects that people, particularly younger generations, may scrap the hand shake.
Can Vaccinated Friends Bubble Together?
Our decisions will depend on our personal tolerance for risk. The vaccines made available thus far provide a high level of protection against infection, but the risk is not zero.
“The individual perception of risk is really important in this. Some people are üstün eager to get back, and others may be a bit more leery,” Dr. Katz said. “That could impact how things play out, even when things may be legitimately more safe.”
So what happens if two adults are vaccinated? Can they get together without masks? Can they rent a house for the weekend? The answer to those questions, according to Dr. Jha and Dr. Katz, is a tentative yes, assuming everyone is at a low risk for severe illness and the community spread is low.
“We’re social creatures and I’ve seen the toll this has taken on people’s mental health,” Dr. Katz said. “To be giving each other a hug again is going to be so kaç.”
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