One of the hardest things about adjusting to life in late-stage Covid has been the making and seeing through of plans. A sniffle – or, more probably, a child’s sniffle – can get you out of anything and, far from looking like an excuse, still be presented as selfless deference to public health. I have been out twice this week, to Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera, and on both occasions have had to fight the urge to cancel at the last minute. Now it’s Thanksgiving and 53 million Americans – only a fraction fewer than pre-pandemic numbers – are expected to be on the move. It’s a celebration, a reunion, and given the atrophied state of our social muscles, also kind of a drag.
For many of us it is strange, simply, to have plans. On the morning of Thanksgiving, my kids and I are travelling 45 minutes north of our home in New York for lunch with friends and extended family. My dad has flown in from London. Other guests are travelling from the midwest, and returning from college campuses. It is the first time we will have attended a party in someone’s house for almost two years, and in the days running up to it, figuring out the rules – or rather, remembering there are rules to figure out – has been hard. Last year, no one was vaccinated. This year, most of the adults present will have had three vaccinations and even the six-year-olds have had one. We’re over the line. Aren’t we?
As has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic, there are multiple overlapping realities, not only in terms of what constitutes risk, but of what risk one is willing to tolerate. It was odd, on Saturday night, to attend a play on Broadway and find the theatre jammed to capacity and the streets outside thick with crowds. At the opera on Tuesday, we walked into a world apparently largely unchanged. I don’t usually go to the opera, but a friend had tickets for Eurydice and since the Met is a few blocks from my house, it seemed churlish to say no. Without consulting each other, she and I both turned up in jeans to be greeted, in the foyer, by crowds of people in black tie and evening gowns. It was weird. Making an effort seemed so pre-pandemic.
This is a good thing, I guess; no good can come of lethargy. But as a spectacle it also seemed faintly ludicrous. At intermission we stood in the bar, watching in amazement as large numbers of people in what looked like period costume sailed by. Perhaps we would have felt this way even before the pandemic; the opera crowd is so very particular. But after months of not going out, and in our generally degraded physical state – I finally detangled the rats’ nests out of my kids’ hair, but none of us have had haircuts for more than 12 months – the whole scene looked outlandish. Who were these groomed and put-together people, dressing to make an impression? “I wish I could be like that,” said my friend, wistfully.
And so to Thanksgiving. With almost 20 million Americans – 91% of pre-pandemic levels – set to pass through airports this week, things are almost back to normal, but not quite. Two days before the holiday, it occurs to our hosts that there are protocols to observe. My children’s school currently has three open Covid cases, and one class is isolating at home. A neighbour’s child has been home for 10 days, isolating after a case in his class. It seems sensible that, in the case of the partially vaccinated kids, we should get Covid-tested.
Last year, this would have been a no-brainer. This year, it’s an 11th-hour addition to the running order and, two days before Thanksgiving, we race around trying to find a test site that isn’t overwhelmed. All the city sites are booked. Private test clinics are charging $99 for a test with a 24-hour turnaround, and – incredibly – $389 for results in two hours. The at-home test kits at the pharmacy are sold out. We have one last hope, the free mobile clinics that dot the neighbourhood. So, after ripping the kids out of school on Tuesday morning, I turn up, expecting to find a line around the block. As it is, there’s only a smattering of people.
Meanwhile our hosts have sent a message that, depending on where you stand on all this, is either sensible, reckless, or a cheerful indication that we are returning to an idea that animates our basic existence – living is risking and the risks here are small: “If it’s too much bother, don’t worry.”
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist