Confessions of a Pandemic Risk-Taker
Remember the early days of the pandemic here in the United States? It was terrifying, sure, even if you weren’t in the hardest-hit areas of New York or Seattle. But there was also a sense of purpose in the early-going, a sense that this was something we could maybe get through together. This was before Liberate Michigan and idiots seeing a mask as an infringement of their personal liberty. This was back in the days of Flatten the Curve, and ringing bells and shouting out the window for health care workers, and We Are All In This Together. I don’t hear much of that anymore. We’re all too divided, too tired, too beaten-down by this pandemic to be inspired by our reactions to it anymore. Now it’s all about mask-shaming and scolding and defiance. That was probably all inevitable, but still: I miss the time when we at least pretended this was something we could overcome if we just stayed inside and tried to take care of one another. But, alas: The pandemic has gone on too long for that, and we are a too-impatient people.
I think, all told, if I were a single version of me sitting in an apartment by myself, I would have been perfectly content, if not necessarily satisfied, to stay indoors and do nothing for eight months. I would have finally got caught up on all those TV shows I never got around to watching, might have at last gotten to work on that book I’d been putting off working on, maybe had regular Zoom cocktails with old friends. I’d have been good at it. My whole generation would be good at it. Though I’m sure I’m kidding myself. It’d just be hard in a whole different way.
The situation here is: I have a family, including two small children, a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old boy. It occurred to me, probably around May or so, as I watched them struggle with the oxymoron that is elementary school “virtual learning,” that while we were inside waiting for the pandemic to be over, time outside of our house was continuing to tick by. What was a difficult, but temporary, disruption in our lives was starting to grow into a significant part of my boys’ childhood. Children are constantly changing, and my wife and I began to notice the pandemic itself changing them. They were becoming more cautious, less heedless, more inward, after only a couple of months. I can have a bad couple of months and shake it off. For children, changes can echo for decades. Keeping them closed up and closed off began to feel more damaging than actually exposing ourselves, and them, to the dangerous outside world of the virus.
So we began, like millions of others … to loosen. Like many of you, many of our early-pandemic routines — leaving packages outside for a couple of days to disinfect, wiping down every inch of our house multiple times a day, never, ever touching our face — fell by the wayside as the months went along. We started to sniff around with other parents about quarantining so we could have play dates, having drinks with friends on the front porch or in the back yard, even heading to a restaurant for outdoor dining. We felt we were being cautious, and careful, and sensible. And then we would look around and realize that much of the rest of the world, as quarantine fatigued as we were, had thrown even more caution to the wind. Which led, as everything in America in 2020 always does, to more fighting. Now, it feels like whatever decision you make is either too cautious or not cautious enough. It feels like everyone’s waiting to shame you for doing something differently than what they would do.
So this is what our family decided: We were going to do stuff. We were just going to do stuff safely.
Thus. We regularly go out to eat: My wife and I have a weekly restaurant reservation together, outside, socially distanced, but with a waiter and cocktails and everything. (We wear masks when ordering and we tip well.) We meet friends in their backyards or on our front porch regularly. We both regularly run through the local park and have even sneaked out to the ballfields for some batting practice a couple of times.
We have even taken part in other activities that some might consider beyond their maximum level of risk. Movie theaters are open here in Athens, Georgia, with limited capacity, and I’ve gone a couple of times, though not since Tenet. (Not that great, by the way. And I was the only one in the theater.) We not only sent our kids back to in-person schooling, we actively fought for the option. And my son and I have even gone to a couple of sporting events, including the Dawgs’ win over Mississippi State two weekends ago.
I have felt safe, and that my family was safe, at each of these expeditions; there have, in fact, been times when we thought something would be safe and distanced, learned quickly that it wasn’t and immediately left. Each event followed all follow the available guidelines: Masked, more than six feet of distance, no physical contact with anyone outside our household. But these events, nonetheless, are riskier than just staying indoors. And I’m always wary of posting about them on social media. I don’t want to be shamed either.
There are many lines — most lines — that I will not cross. We go nowhere without a mask. People eating and drinking indoors strike me as absurdly reckless. The gym memberships have been canceled. We haven’t seen most of our friends in nearly a year now. It’s not like we’re out attending swingers conventions or anything. We care about the safety of not just this family but our surrounding community, and our nation as a whole. But I also feel like the best way for my family to handle this pandemic, emotionally as well as physically, is not to simply hide out and wait for it to end. Time is passing, the boys are getting older; they’ve both had birthdays in the pandemic, so they are now both literally different people than they were when this started. There are things in this world that can be done safely. So we do them safely.
This pandemic, because of the total abdication of responsibility from the federal government, has been in many ways a constant experiment in social risk assessment, and everyone lands in different places across that spectrum. It is the opinion of this household that closing off from the rest of the world has enough potential emotional risks that it offsets the physical risks of leaving. I want my children to live. My life can just go on pause, but theirs cannot. We recognize that this decision is inherently less “safe” than staying idle. But we will always make the safe decision and take every precaution possible, while also noting how fortunate we are to even be able to make a conscious decision about any of this. People can be responsible and still try to make the best of an impossible situation. We feel we must still engage with the world to be a part of it, not just for now, but for when this is all over. Time stops for no one. Even now: It’s still going on. We must not let it pass us by.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.