After 2 years of pandemic life, turn toward normalcy is a shake-up
By Jack Healy and Ashley Wong
It was two years ago that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and after nearly 1 million deaths across the United States, the virus is far from gone. Rates of new infections, while improving, are still higher now than the beginning of last summer.
But after signs of progress and exhaustion, even cities and states with the strictest coronavirus precautions have been rolling them back. For millions of Americans who kept their masks on and socially distanced long after much of the country abandoned safety measures, it is a moment that has stirred relief but also disappointment, frustration and queasy ambivalence.
“I’m confused at how we go so sharply from one extreme to the other,” said Lindsey Liss, 47, an artist and mother of four teenagers in Chicago, which lifted its indoor mask mandate for businesses late last month. “I feel like I’m missing something. If we finally got it under control, why wouldn’t we ease back into things and test it out rather than jump all the way in?”
In places like Florida and Texas, people have been living for months with few if any restrictions. But residents of COVID-19-cautious cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco said they were now trying to figure out the new rules of the road after two years of anxious vigilance.
Should they let themselves go maskless in public? Would they make others feel uncomfortable at the supermarket or gym? They worried about alienating or infecting vulnerable friends and family. Some parents said they were glad their children could finally attend school without a mask, while others worried that children still too young to get vaccinated were now at greater risk of infection.
Several people said they felt whipsawed as Democratic mayors and governors who once championed safety measures as a public good and emblem of civic virtue now seemed ready to turn the page on a pandemic that, while easing, is still killing more than 1,000 people every day across the United States.
“We’ve built up this armor of strategies to reduce transmission, and it’s just hard to take that armor off,” said Marcel Moran, an instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, who taught his first unmasked classes this past week after the university dropped its indoor requirement.
Moran had always found it annoying to lecture for three hours with a mask, so he was glad to remove it. He said most of his 70 students still wore masks as they sat and discussed urban planning, with the classroom windows and doors thrown open for ventilation.
The mandates are lifting at a hopeful moment for the national coronavirus outlook. New cases have plummeted from the height of the winter omicron surge, falling to 36,000 a day from a peak of 800,000, and the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has fallen by 75%.
In New York City, fewer than 700 new infections are being reported daily, about 2% of the number seen at omicron’s peak.
But as the country approaches the grim milestone of 1 million deaths, the pace of new vaccinations has slowed, rising just slightly since the beginning of the year. About 65% of Americans are now fully vaccinated, and children younger than 5 remain ineligible to be vaccinated.
After so many false victories and deadly surges in the past two years, many people said they feared dropping their guard now only to invite a pernicious new variant to dash their hopes yet again.
In interviews, Americans concerned with the easing of restrictions said they were bewildered by what felt like an abrupt change, especially given the enduring threat that COVID-19 poses to older people and those with disabilities and weakened immune systems.
“It feels like we’ve truly been left to die,” said Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers, a writer in Mountain View, California, with cystic fibrosis. “It seems too much too soon, like people are giving up because they can’t be bothered anymore.”
Elected leaders have faced relentless pressure to undo virus restrictions from conservatives and protests like the trucker convoy circling the Beltway in Washington, D.C. Others say the restrictions are no longer worth the price of isolation, depression, rising crime and damage to children’s educations.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that about 98% of Americans live in communities where they no longer need to wear masks. Passengers must still wear masks on planes, buses and public transit through at least April 18, but the CDC said Thursday that it was beginning to review its guidelines for masking on public transit.
As mandates end, public opinion surveys show that Americans are still concerned about the pandemic; half or more support masking and other restrictions to control the spread of the virus.
The easing has also troubled public health officials like Thomas LaVeist, the dean of public health at Tulane University who also serves as co-chair of Louisiana’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.
“Everyone is worn out. Everyone is exhausted. I am as well,” he said recently. “But we lost 1,400 Americans yesterday to COVID, and we’ll probably lose another 1,400 today. And I don’t think anything has happened that suggests to me that vaccine mandates and mask mandates should be lifted.”
Other wary Americans said they felt safe going unmasked but worried about offending or infecting friends and family. Some said that loosening restrictions would actually make them feel less secure about going to supermarkets or bookstores, driving them back into their homes.
“We just haven’t learned,” Dr. David Goldberg, 32, an internal medicine physician, said as he and his wife took their 1-year-old daughter, Isabel, for a walk through their neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia.
Parents of children younger than 5 said they had been left exposed as the restrictions lapsed.
Goldberg said he was acutely worried about the risk of COVID-19 for Isabel, especially given so many uncertainties about the virus’s long-term effects on children. He said he was standing in line at a grocery store recently when a man next to him complained that he did not feel well.
“I was like, Dude, what are you doing?” Goldberg said. “I feel for parents who are just waiting. They feel left behind. Kids can get sick and they can die.”