Covid rates have never been higher. Yet people are behaving as if the pandemic is over. But with so much inscrutable advice, is it any wonder?
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For over a week now, I’ve been trying to figure out what my city’s Covid guidance means. I live in Austin, Texas, where we’ve moved into what the city calls “Stage 5”—its highest alert level for the pandemic. The city issued a press release issued on January 6, and there’s an illustrated chart that was last updated in late December. These two documents do not say the same things, and some of the recommended risk-mitigation strategies are literally and legally impossible for anyone who lives in Austin.
The press release says that people like me—vaccinated and boosted—should wear “well-fitting masks” and choose outdoor, curbside, and takeout options when shopping, drinking, or dining. But the chart says that I can dine inside or go to a bar if I wear a mask, while a local journalist reporting on the guidance wrote that Stage 5 means folks like me should “only” dine at establishments that require masks and vaccines.
There is no such thing as a restaurant that requires masks and vaccines in Texas.
Our Republican state government prohibits business owners from instituting mask and vaccine requirements, because freedom. I suppose I could travel to a state where mask and vaccine mandates are legal to have a meal or a drink? But the guidance also seems to caution against non-essential travel! Even if there were such a thing as a bar or restaurant that required masks and vaccines in Texas, it’s not physically possible to eat or drink with a mask on anyway, and I am not aware of any reliable scientific research showing that Covid stops being transmissible as long as I’m having a nice meal.
I just want to know if it’s okay to grab a drink with my friends!
I was in the midst of trying to unpack this for the purpose of writing this very column—I had planned to write about the confusion of ever-shifting Covid guidelines and conflicting media reports—when I happened to glance at Twitter. (Okay, I intentionally looked at Twitter, because the pandemic has decimated what little attention span I ever had in The Before.) There was the Houston Chronicle informing me that, despite CDC warnings against taking cruises during the Omicron surge, the big boats in Galveston are steaming off at 70 to 80 percent capacity.
Me: Reading obscure medical journals to determine if I can drink a patio beer in good conscience.
Everyone else, apparently: Just going on a fucking cruise!
Boy, do I feel like an asshole.
Covid guidelines are confusing. The CDC itself has been roundly criticized for shortening quarantine recommendations, and for creating messy gray areas around testing and symptom presentations that force people to more or less guess when it’s safe to return to everyday activities like shopping or sending their kids to school.
But the United States reported over 1.4 million new Covid cases on Monday. Lines at PCR testing sites are backed up for hours, results have been delayed for days and sometimes weeks, and less-reliable at-home tests are still expensive, and that’s if and when you can find them or figure out how to file your insurance for them (if you have it). You had to be pretty tuned out to the news cycle over the winter holidays to have missed it all; do we really need the CDC to tell us that this week is not exactly the primo-No. 1 time to board a ship for, and I feel like I’m trolling just by using the word, fun?
I know I’m not the only person on Earth who’s still staying home, but sometimes it really feels like it. Trying to unpack these ever-shifting Covid guidelines is fucking exhausting. Reading the news makes me feel actually crazy, and I don’t mean “crazy” as a euphemism for annoyed or angry. I mean that sometimes I really wonder if the reality I am living in—where the pandemic is wrecking our health-care workers and decimating our medical systems and long Covid is real and pediatric hospitalizations are on the rise and service and retail and manufacturing and industrial workers are being forced to show up to work sick or die trying—is just … not?
Tuesday morning, my local Axios newsletter opened with a story about our nationwide failure to track Covid test results as cases and hospitalizations push the country’s health-care apparatus to the brink. The second story in the newsletter covered the new Virgin Atlantic route launching between Austin and London and all the delicious food that will be served onboard.
Look, I know I’m the wettest blanket and the downeriest-Debbie but … the fucking what now? The news today is that we have no nationwide strategy for tracking millions of Covid tests and you can get a great salad on your international flight?
Ye gods, give me a fucking lifestyle magazine for people who put 100,000 miles on their couch cushions last year.
I keep hearing that we can’t live in fear anymore. That we’ve just got to buck up and get back out there. If Covid were a shitty relationship, that might be pretty good advice. But it’s not a shitty relationship. It’s a pandemic. And it’s really, really bad right now. Worse than it’s ever been. But everywhere I look, people are taking fewer precautions than ever. For every bad-news story about the pandemic, there seem to be dozens more about all the exciting stuff we can do now that things are “back to normal.”
I mean, plans are still on for Mardi Gras in Mississippi, the state with the highest Covid death rate in the nation. Why? Because, as organizers told the Associated Press, “We are so ready to get rid of this Covid and get back to normal.” It’s time for fun, they said. It’s time to get “back to life.”
It is my understanding, and it has been my understanding for some time now, that mass gatherings—especially mass gatherings with alcohol—are one of the very best ways to spread Covid, not to “get rid” of it. There are some people who will never get “back to life” after Mardi Gras this year, because of Mardi Gras this year. So, real question: We’re just fine with that?
Is it really just me? Is everyone else just living and loving life? Is throwing a massive drunk party right this second not high on the list of ways to ensure many people will get sick and some of them will die, thereby prolonging the pandemic rather than ending it?
I keep thinking about all those people on the cruise ships right now. About how wild and wonderful it must be to just feel safe and good getting on those boats. If I’m being honest, I’m straight-up jealous. It must be absolutely amazing to live like that.
I also keep thinking about the people who work on those ships. There’s a brief bit in the Chronicle story—it’s practically an aside—where a local Texas health official says that the folks who are getting sick on cruises are mostly crew members, not passengers. The reader is, I think, supposed to find this comforting. No crew members are quoted in the piece.
And let’s consider the restaurant industry workers here in Austin who are demanding the Covid protections and sick leave that they still don’t have as we begin year three of this pandemic. And the parents who have no choice but to send their kids to school amid the Omicron surge. I’m thinking about every single child under the age of 5. I’m thinking about the teachers (teachers!) who are being blamed for the fact that we’ve never even for a single moment in this country provided for people the actual, meaningful resources they need to stay safe and healthy.
There’s no such thing as not living in fear. There is only displacing fear, making it someone else’s risk and responsibility. Omicron is reportedly “mild” for people who are vaccinated and boosted, but we’re seeing the real-time results of “not living in fear” right now, and for lots of us, it’s still scary as hell. Because it’s not just fuck the unvaccinated, let them die. (“The unvaccinated” includes literally every child in this country who’s not old enough for kindergarten.) We’re all connected. That’s why we’re seeing hospital systems on the brink of collapse. It’s why our (vaccinated!) teachers and our (vaccinated!) servers and our (vaccinated!) sanitation workers and everybody, just everybody, who keeps the lights on and the water running and the packages delivered and people fed and housed and clothed is taking on so much risk and so much responsibility and so much fear.
Despite a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, retail and service workers, manufacturing and transportation workers, and industrial workers are still putting themselves at risk for the sake of a supposed economic recovery that, now that Omicron has hit, feels like it must have happened to someone else, somewhere else. We’re measuring our economic health on Wall Street’s terms, at a tremendous emotional, physical, and social cost to millions.
We may not have a choice about going to work or sending our kids to school, but surely we can avoid getting on a cruise ship? Surely we can delay our fabulous international vacations for a few weeks? Surely we can opt-out of mass gatherings with thousands of strangers until this surge has passed? Surely we can agree that, for as tired as we all are of being at home, alone and bored, or surrounded by people, unable to get a single quiet moment for ourselves, we can withstand a little more of the same old shit? Surely this is not going to destroy us? Aren’t we already destroying each other?
This is fucked up, right? Like I said, I feel nuts a lot of the time. I have to check.
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