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In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us had high hopes for the summer: “Maybe by the time the kids are off for summer break, the virus will be under control and we can still go on vacation.” “Maybe the warm weather will drastically slow the spread of COVID-19.”
If only. Nearly five months into the pandemic, the virus is clearly here to stay. Summer, sadly, isn’t a magic bullet. As temperatures rise, COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise in several states. A vaccine is still a hypothetical. Some experts say widespread mask-wearing could slow down infection rates, but the battle over face masks in public has only intensified. It’s all very concerning, to say the least.
Still, those concerns haven’t stopped many Americans from looking for means to escape. Over the weekend, videos posted to social media showed massive crowds gathered in front of the stage at a Chainsmokers concert in the Hamptons in New York. Your timeline and Instagram story section are probably full of people posting pics and videos from their barbecues, vacations, beach days and pool parties.
The travel industry is ready and waiting, pandemic be damned. “We know you #WannaGetAway so book today to take advantage of our low fares,” Southwest Airlines tweeted earlier this month.
Walt Disney World in Florida, a coronavirus hotspot, reopened this month with strict policies in place for visitors (face masks, temperature screenings). Videos on social media show cast members making the rounds in the park, dressed up as Belle and Ariel and other Disney princesses, sans mask. Even in the Florida heat, donning a full Mickey or Mr. Incredible suit seems preferable.
If you’ve been sheltering in place, more or less, seeing people living it up this summer can be a little crazy-making. A recent tweet from journalist Louis Peitzman pointed out the incongruity of seeing people treating this summer just like any other while COVID-19 cases surge.
“If you do break social distancing, consider not posting photos of your group hang or your mask-free beach day,” Pietzman said. “Not because you’ll get dragged — though you might! — but because of the effect it has on your followers.”
It’s weird to see people partying it up, going to Florida’s Walt Disney World or New York’s Fire Island in the middle of a pandemic. But as Peitzman said in his Twitter thread, what’s weirder is forcing yourself to square those images with your own begrudged acceptance of reality. What pandemic are they living in? Because it’s certainly not everyone’s.
“My reaction to these photos is often anger, but buried under that’s a seed of doubt,” Peitzman wrote. “I spend all day reading studies and tracking the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations and deaths, and STILL, I see enough maskless pics and think, maybe I’m the crazy one. It wears you down.”
My reaction to these photos is often anger, but buried under that's a seed of doubt. I spend all day reading studies and tracking the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations and deaths, and STILL, I see enough maskless pics and think, maybe I'm the crazy one. It wears you down.
— BOO-is Frightsman (@LouisPeitzman) July 21, 2020
In spite of warnings from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people clearly have very different takes on what is safe to do and what’s too risky. That’s especially true of younger generations. The belief up until now has generally been that younger people were less likely to have severe consequences from exposure to the coronavirus, which has led some to behave as if they’re invincible. That’s a dangerous gambit; as the first wave of the virus begins to resurge, the average age of U.S. coronavirus patients is actually shifting lower.
It’s hard for young people to accept this, though, said Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say It and Mean It ― and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.”
“Unlike older adults, it is patently clear that it doesn’t make scientific sense for vibrant, healthy young people to have to worry about getting it,” she told HuffPost. “But this virus is insidious and cares not how old you are, that you are ‘over it all’ and want to take a much-needed break or go about business as usual.”
Quarantine fatigue has many of us subscribing to a kind of magical thinking.
“The problem is, indulging yourself in a fun or relaxing pastime will not solve what is a rampant crisis,” Newman said. “The hours or vacation week you spend away from being more or less confined to your home may feel wonderful, but in the long run it could be foolish.”
It’s foolish for several reasons. You may have put your faith in “herd immunity” and say, “If I get it, I get it, I can’t stop living my life anymore.” But what about your family? Newman asked.
“When you take a ‘break’ that ignores social distancing and mask wearing, you risk bringing COVID-19 home to those you live with or see regularly even if you have no symptoms,” she said. “Is that worth a brief timeout?”
Plus, she noted, if you’re traveling any distance, do you really want to be sick in a far-off city, away from the comforts of home and possibly stranded for the indeterminate future?
Of course, the potential harm extends beyond your family: Let’s say you take that trip to Cabo you planned earlier this year. You and your family may have a wonderful, rejuvenating time, but what about the people who are serving you? What about the flight staff that had to come into work because you created a demand?
What about the hotel staff who may have elderly or immunocompromised family at home? What about the restaurant workers whose bosses demand they go in or lose their job? What about the hospital workers whose medical centers are stretched thin and aren’t prepared to handle another outbreak?
The truth is, we all want a vacation, but this virus requires us to take a more holistic view of our personal choices and a less individualistic one.
“U.S. culture is known for individualism,” said Melissa Wesner, a counselor and owner of LifeSpring Counseling Services in Towson, Maryland. “We think about ourselves and our personal wants, needs and goals. One of the issues that is coming up at this time is our ability to demonstrate care, concern and understanding for others.”
Countries that are more collectivist may have a leg up with combating the coronavirus since they tend to prioritize the group over the self.
“More collective communities focus on what is beneficial to others or to the community at large,” Wesner said. “This relates to something as simple as deciding to wear a face mask. Deciding not to wear a face mask, despite the recommendations shows that I’m thinking about my own wants and needs and that I’m not demonstrating care or concern for others or how my decisions will impact others.”
This isn’t about vacation-shaming. Five months into stay-at-home orders in many parts of the country, we’re all at our wits’ end. We’ve never needed a break so badly: We’re working without respite ― or if we were laid off earlier in the pandemic, we’re exhaustively looking for work. To add insult to injury, we’re seeing other countries that have had a better handle on the virus start to reopen with few hiccups. “Why can’t that be us?” we think.
Given all that stress, breaks and personal time need to be taken. Go on a short, safe local road trip. Go on a hike or have a socially distanced picnic with your family.
But recognize that summer 2020 may not be the best time to go big or go home with your vacation plans. Living your best life on a boat or on a tropical island or gathering three generations of your family for a week at the lake isn’t responsible.
As New York City psychologist and anxiety specialist Amelia Aldao told us, no amount of denial or extensive vacation plans will make the current situation easier to swallow.
“There are many situations in life that are so difficult, stressful or traumatic that going to a place in which we pretend problems aren’t there or things aren’t as bad can be helpful psychologically,” she said. “We need hope, we need a sense of belonging. And sometimes the facts don’t give us that.”
But denial also means we underestimate risk, which can end up creating a more dangerous situation, Aldao said. When we crave escapism, it’s really about finding a healthy balance between escape and reality.
“A little bit of distraction ― or perhaps some denial ― can be helpful at times, but ultimately, we grow and thrive when we face those things that are difficult,” Aldao said.
“In the case of COVID, understanding the risks we take and being OK with that … is a more balanced, psychologically healthy approach than pretending the risk is zero,” she explained.
Owning up to our actions is difficult but ultimately extremely empowering.
How to manage our expectations when we really want to get away.
The first step to grappling with a pandemic summer is accepting that it is a pandemic summer. Normalize doing nothing (or next to nothing) and instead start envisioning your big blowout trip for when it’s safe. Take a long view of your vacation goals (and goals in general).
Remember that if you have vacation days, you should still use them. Take some time off work, even if you have nowhere to go and no plans to speak of.
“Step away from work, turn off your cellphone and computer for a few days,” Newman said. “Challenge yourself to longer walks or jogs, paint a room or finish a project you never have time for. You will be surprised how refreshing meeting a self-determined goal or sprucing up your apartment or home can be.”
Obviously, turning your bedroom or living room into your own personal sanctuary isn’t the same as being sprawled out on the sand in the sun, margarita in hand, but it will lift your spirits and keep you safe.
When the hankering to travel or to go to a friend’s place gets really bad, ask yourself what’s driving that feeling, Aldao said. What emotional need will that trip or wine night fulfill? Then ask yourself: Are there less-risky versions of that activity (for you and others) that fulfill the same need?
“For example, if you’re itching to go to a house party with friends because you miss laughing with them, can you instead grab a drink or coffee with one or two of them in an open, outdoor space while wearing a mask and practicing social distance?” she said.
In times like these, when there are so many restrictions and evolving mandates on what’s safe and not safe to do, it’s incredibly important to connect with our emotional drivers: why we’re doing what we’re doing, Aldao said.
Newman agreed. That’s a far healthier long-term approach to living with the coronavirus than simply denying it exists.
“Going out and about as if life were as it was before the pandemic is a dangerous form of denial,” she said. “We have to shift our mindset to accept that the pandemic won’t go on forever. You can resume dining out with friends or take that weekend break or vacation later. There’s going to be so many restaurant dinners and parties with friends down the road.”