Over the span of a single week in June, Theresa, a mother of a 3-year-old in Pennsylvania, attended both a wedding and a funeral. The funeral was respectful, safe, and socially distant. The wedding was, well, not.
She arrived at the small barn to find that hardly any of the 150 guests inside were wearing masks. People hugged and partied on the dance floor. Food was served buffet-style, which meant guests were standing (and breathing) over the food as they passed through the queue. Porta potties — the only place to use the bathroom — contained no hand sanitizer or soap.
Though she knew going would potentially expose her and other guests to the coronavirus, an already tense family dynamic made her feel that if she and her husband didn’t make the trip to the West Virginia border, “it would be seen as an insult, a deliberate dig,” she says. (It’s because of that dynamic that she asked not to be referred to by her real name.)
And yet the setup was even worse than she could have imagined. The pandemic “wasn’t even acknowledged,” she says. It was clear that the lack of precautions was intentional: “The bride’s dad is very vocal on Facebook about how masks are bad and dumb, and he’s not wearing one,” she says. “[My husband] has one cousin who put something on Facebook calling masks ‘freedom muzzles.’” She says she regrets attending at all.
Attending an epidemiologist’s worst nightmare is just one example of the social awkwardness of leaving quarantine while a pandemic rages on. As some states skip blindly toward indoor bars and office jobs and others frantically retreat from backfired reopening plans, every social interaction now feels fraught with a million unspoken tensions. A simple ask to “go get drinks” instantly becomes a test of intimacy; elevators, already predisposed to make strangers feel weird next to each other, are now an even more bizarre site from which to judge whether or not a person is “safe.” Because asymptomatic young people are believed to be a leading cause of spreading the virus, our initial ideas about who is safe and who isn’t don’t hold up, and several months in, wearing a mask has become a political statement, and large swaths of the country don’t believe the virus is a threat. Parties and reunions, for months understood to be virtual-only affairs, are now being rescheduled at restaurants, all with varying policies.
Jody Avirgan, a journalist and podcast host in Brooklyn, says he’s had to have the “pandemic talk” several times. “I’ve tried to spark conversations with my friend group, saying, ‘Hey, it would be good to get to a place where we’re forthright and normalize saying the risks we’re taking, our exposure, our behavior.’ [We have to] be okay with it being part of regular conversation, especially if you’re seeing someone for the first time in a while.”
It feels less weird only when he has a good excuse to bring it up. “I think it was easier for the parents at [my child’s] day care to say, ‘What has everyone been up to?’ It was done through the proxy of our children, but when we do it directly with another person who you’re friends with or whatever, it’s just a little bit more direct.”
There’s a term for what Avirgan describes: insinuation anxiety. Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, uses a common analogy to illustrate the concept. “Say someone is trying to sell something to another person, either advice or a product, and the adviser says, ‘I have a conflict of interest. Here’s my advice, but you should know, my advice reflects the fact that I’m doing my best, but I get paid more if you take this advice.’ It turns out that in some cases, that actually increases compliance with the advice.” It’s counterintuitive, but the person taking the advice, Wilkinson-Ryan says, often “feels anxious about insinuating that the other person is untrustworthy.”
The direct correlation to a coronavirus-era situation could be walking down the street with your mask dangling around your neck, and then lifting it over your nose and face when another person walks by. On one hand, it could show that you’re being respectful, but it also might come across as an insinuation of the other person’s hygiene and safety. Neither option — keeping the mask down or lifting it up — feels good for the decision-maker.
“One thing that helps here is the ability to delegate the decision, almost like playing a social trump card,” Wilkinson-Ryan explains. It’s not exactly confrontational to say that you can’t hang out because you’re planning on seeing an at-risk family member soon. “It’s tougher to say, ‘I just feel like you guys go to the park too much.’”
Every day, people are weighing the immediate social cost of an invitation with the abstract possibility of exposing themselves or others to a disease that could feel like a regular cold or could kill you. It’s a choice that seems easy until it isn’t, and it’s one that regular people never should have to make in the first place.
Since late last year, Riley, a video producer in New York, had been planning a group couples’ trip to Mexico in August, but ultimately decided to cancel when cases began to spike in states that had reopened quickly. It was clear that bringing 10 people from different areas of the country together might be unsafe, regardless of what their local guidelines claimed. (She didn’t want to be named to avoid the aforementioned awkwardness.)
One friend, however, continued to push for an alternative. “She was sending links to hotels in states where cases were starting to spike, places we couldn’t even drive to in a day, and just furiously fighting for some undead zombie iteration of this great, tropical trip we had planned before we knew what 2020 would be,” Riley says.
They’d never had a conflict before, but their opposing approaches to pandemic safety have caused a strain. “I felt like a jerk. It felt weirdly hard to just say, ‘I don’t want to go.’ Who wants to go on a vacation where you’re just riddled with guilt, anxiety, and uncertainty the whole time?” On the other hand, Riley acknowledges that her friend’s excitement about the trip likely comes from the fact that she’d lost her job due to the coronavirus, and she wanted something to look forward to. Wanting to travel with friends is a perfectly human reaction to being stuck inside for four months without a job.
Wilkinson-Ryan doesn’t blame the people who are being shamed on social media for not social distancing or attending events. “I actually think people who are making choices that are consistent with the rules in the jurisdiction that they are living in, that’s the fault of leadership,” she says. “Those businesses should not be allowed to hold large gatherings. The businesses can be held accountable in a way that the individuals can’t.”
In the absence of a coherent federal plan to deal with the still-growing threat of the coronavirus, everything — literally everything that matters, including the physical safety and economic security and future of human beings — is now determined by individual Americans’ decisions. You can see the problem here: In states where lockdown restrictions have been lifted and gathering places like restaurants have reopened, coronavirus cases and deaths are skyrocketing.
An analogous activity, she explains, is drunk driving. “It’s really risky to others, and so we don’t let people do it. It’s a really unusual situation in which you are permitted to create enormous risks for others, and it’s reasonable for individuals to think the risks must be low if they’re allowed to do this.”
It’s not like the economies in those regions have suddenly shot back up with them, either. “We managed to disrupt our economy [and] skyrocket unemployment, and we didn’t control the damn virus,” said Jeff Shaman, an infectious disease modeler at Columbia University. Now, regular people are left to sift through the mess with every restaurant reservation, business decision, and party invite. The result is, essentially, anarchy.
Private businesses like restaurants and hair salons have now become ideological war zones, where patrons act out their frustrations on workers who are risking their safety to be there. Moments like these have had the potential to become national news, often in the form of angry “Karens” caught on video berating essential workers over having to wear a mask. Some are intentionally coughing on bartenders or starting fights after being asked to wear a mask and socially distance, even as a single reopened bar in Michigan has been linked to more than 100 new cases of Covid-19.
In Los Angeles late last month, one Mexican restaurant voluntarily closed its doors to give its staffers a break from the constant harassment. Hugo’s Tacos announced that it would be temporarily closing its two taco stands after clerks were repeatedly verbally abused and, in one case, had a drink thrown at them.
Co-owner Bill Kohne told Vox that complaints about unruly customers had started to pick up just after Memorial Day, “when a lot of people seemed to just shrug off what they’d accepted for a few weeks or months before,” he says. One day in June, he asked his facility manager to spend time surveying the taco stand, and in just one hour, he’d seen five confrontations. “They were defiant, calling him names, stepping 4 feet back after making an order with a mask, saying, ‘See. I’m on a public sidewalk, you can’t do anything to me now.’”
Kohne says that while he’s still paying their wages, he gave his employees two weeks off “to give everybody some time to take a breath and stay home with their families. Our staff is already vulnerable.”
“Public health is not political,” Kohne says. “It’s become a symbol of what you believe or who your support, and it’s just none of those things. It’s really up to us. We live in a state here with good leadership, but they can’t do it alone. It’s a national problem and it needs a national solution.”
Walking into a business now and interacting with its employees feels stranger than ever, with both customer and worker speculating on the others’ safety habits and, now, political stance. At a hair salon in Alexandria, Virginia, in late June, a masked stylist took my temperature and gave me a form to sign before I even sat in the chair. The night before, the restaurant where my parents and I had a reservation seated us indoors. We scanned uneasy looks around the dining room, which we shared with at least a dozen other people, but when a familiar song alerted that it was someone’s birthday across the room, everyone, tipsy on bottles of wine and a queasy facsimile of normal life, joined in to sing. Each place was just as bizarre to experience as the other, but for completely opposite reasons.
It shouldn’t have to be our own responsibility to make the kinds of decisions that have life-or-death consequences that may be invisible to us, but it is. “It’s funny,” Avirgan laughs dryly, “Learning to set boundaries is probably a good life lesson. But it’s a pretty shitty way to learn it.”
Rebecca Jennings is a reporter covering pop and internet culture at The Goods by Vox.