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The next pandemic challenge: Reacquainting ourselves with everyday risks

Some people are ready to loosen up and socialize again, while others are unnerved by the thought. Can each group accept that the other is having a normal reaction?

Avoiding social gatherings for the past year has become a habit that will be hard for some people to break.
Avoiding social gatherings for the past year has become a habit that will be hard for some people to break.Shutterstock

An invitation is coming, maybe sooner than you expect: a party, inside, with people you don’t even know.

Will you react with delight at the impending return of the easygoing closeness COVID-19 has taken away? Trepidation over whether to stretch your late-pandemic boundaries? Disgust at the prospect of a superspreader event, where partygoers spritz one another with pathogens as they belt out “Happy Birthday”?

Any of these responses would be normal, given what we’ve been through — and what we’ve missed — in the year since COVID-19 took over our lives. But it won’t be long before social events return to the realm of responsible behavior, challenging everyone to weigh the lingering dangers against other things we cherish.

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“It will take some time for folks to recalibrate the way they perceive threat as they interact in social spaces, both on a personal, individualized level and on a community or societal level,” says Rachel A. Merson, a psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders.

Public health authorities have asked us to elevate the imperative to avoid this virus above nearly everything else — to be extra sensitive to the risk of catching it or giving it to someone else. And despite huge national divisions about how much the pandemic should alter our routines, COVID-19 has brought about a sustained, collective change in behavior and expectations that is without modern precedent.

Some people will find it harder than others to reset those habits, tastes, and boundaries, even as mounting vaccinations decrease the actual danger.

Just look at the range of reactions to Monday’s advisory from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said vaccinated people should feel free to visit one another indoors without masks and be unmasked around family members who are at low risk for the virus. Some commentators argued that the CDC could encourage people to get shots by blessing even more activities — like traveling. More cautious public health experts, meanwhile, warned against vaccinated grandparents “overdoing” hugs and kisses with the grandkids.

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Kenneth C. Davis, the author of “More Deadly Than War,” a history of the 1918 influenza pandemic, says that crisis might not offer an analogy for today as apt as is the rationing brought about by the Great Depression and World War II, when people experienced a level of scarcity that later generations have never seen. Some carried imprints of those crises for life, reusing teabags, for instance, even when tea had become cheap and plentiful.

In time, human nature will help most people overcome the lingering fear of COVID-19, says Wendy Wood, a University of Southern California professor who researches how people form patterns of behavior and is the author of the book “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”

“As long as people are interacting some, that’s going to just snowball back into something normal. I’m convinced of that,” she says. “That’s just the way people work.”

Still, a year is long enough to establish some patterns of behavior that will be tough to break.

“I think it’s going to be a real hard shift right at the beginning, because we have been so wary and risk-averse with social interactions,” Wood says.

‘Still too close’

Already, people who have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations report diverging attitudes about the danger that remains.

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Joyce P. Clark, 61, of Roslindale, has deeply missed being with people. She wants to see the Monet exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. She hasn’t been able to go to the library. All of her volunteering has been online.

Clark had lung surgery over the summer, and she’s still recovering. She thinks often about what could happen to her if she gets infected.

Clark got her second dose of the Moderna vaccine in early February, which means that by now it has likely reached its full protective potential. Now she’s less worried that COVID-19 will kill her. But she’s not confident enough of her safety to do anything substantially different.

“I’m walking around with half a lung, and I just don’t want to expose myself to too much, because we just don’t know enough,” she says. “Would I feel the same way if I hadn’t had surgery? I may not.”

Joyce Clark is a Boston resident who has had both COVID-19 vaccination shots but still continues to take the same precautions because of a health condition.
Joyce Clark is a Boston resident who has had both COVID-19 vaccination shots but still continues to take the same precautions because of a health condition.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Every day, she has to go in person to Longwood Medical and Academic Area for her work scheduling participants in medical studies, checking them in, and screening them. She wears personal protective equipment on the job, and beyond that her social circle has remained tiny.

She spends time with her husband, and she sees her brother and his family, but she stays far away when she visits — just in case.

Pleasures such as restaurant dining remain out of the question until Clark has more information about how vaccines work against newer variants of the coronavirus and how effectively they prevent people from transmitting the virus to others.

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“It just feels still too close,” Clark says. “Even if the table is still six feet away, there’s a lot of people walking past you, and it’s uncomfortable. I’m just not ready for that.”

Meanwhile, Dalton DeLima, 26, who is an emergency medical technician at a retirement community in Peabody, says he has noticed a shift in the way he’s been thinking about the virus since he got his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in late January.

Though DeLima is in an age group that has generally been considered lower risk, he has asthma, which can complicate cases. He also has to think about whether his choices will affect vulnerable people where he works. DeLima says it will be a long time before he’s comfortable with a hug from an acquaintance, or even a handshake. He wouldn’t go to a nightclub anytime soon, even if they were open.

Nonetheless, his comfort level is growing. Even before he got vaccinated, DeLima sometimes went to a restaurant with his girlfriend, he says. It was important to him to support the businesses and retain some connection to pre-pandemic life.

But they never strayed from the same few places where they knew the safety protocols were rock solid. DeLima says he kept a mask on anytime he wasn’t taking a sip of his drink or a bite of his food, and he tried to eat outside whenever he could.

Now he’s ready to try new spots. And at a recent trip to a Buffalo Wild Wings, DeLima noticed that he wasn’t thinking about how close together people were. He just noticed people, together. It felt like things were changing.

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“It felt like a regular night,” he says. “It actually felt like a real experience. That night was the first time I’d felt that in a long time.”

Even if the protection from the vaccines turns out to be only partial, he says, “it does something mentally for you.”

“And I think that’s one of the most important things right now: giving people the confidence to try and move forward,” DeLima says.

‘It’s going to be messy’

There will be no one moment when the pandemic is “over.” People will be vaccinated at different times. Everybody has their own unique considerations, medical vulnerabilities, or at-risk relatives. Some people are naturally more risk averse. And some have never accepted that the pandemic is cause for significant disruption.

We all know how divisive these differences can be. Lockdowns, masks, and business closures were some of the most important issues in last year’s presidential election. Questions around health and safety have led to bitter conflicts in families and communities that may have believed they were bound by shared values.

There’s a real danger that those chasms will get worse as government restrictions fall away. In some states, such as Texas, mask mandates have been lifted. And even in more cautious Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has taken steps such as reopening performance venues.

As governments ease restrictions, people will have to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with. That happened at the beginning of the pandemic, too. But things have changed over the past 12 months.

“Back then, there wasn’t really a political element to it so much. It was much more individual. You made up your mind,” says Alexandra Freeman, executive director of the Winton Centre for Risk & Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “Now it feels that there’s a lot more social signaling, and that there are people in different camps about what should happen, and that they’re going to to follow those camps with their behaviors. I think it’s going to be messy.”

There are many risks that we simply learn to live with. Car accidents continue to kill tens of thousands of people per year, but we still drive. Drowning is the leading cause of death by injury for small children, but we still build pools and visit swimming holes. The flu continues to be a dangerous illness each year, but life goes on.

COVID-19 has been deadlier than any of these hazards. But if the vaccines do their job, it will join them as a lower-level threat to be managed and tolerated. And that moment will arrive earlier for some people than others. What will determine how individuals behave in the coming months is how minor they feel the risk to be.

Perhaps no question has created more discord than whether to reopen schools for in-person learning. And even the partial return to classrooms around Boston last fall showed the emotional toll of the differing opinions over what is safe enough.

Merson, the BU psychologist, saw a spike in inquiries at her clinic for kids and teenagers with anxiety. Many of the cases were severe, and some were in children who had never had serious problems with anxiety before. After months of avoiding social contact as too risky, returning to it was terrifying them.

She anticipates that many adults will also struggle as the reopening accelerates. “The most important thing is to be respectful of where people are coming from,” Merson says.

A broader consensus, when it comes, won’t feel like a dam breaking. It will be more like the slow thaw of a frozen stream: As ice melts, more water flows, accelerating the melting until finally the current carries the last of the winter away.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.