(Creative Commons/wuestenigel)

As 46 states open up their vaccination processes to all individuals above the ages of 16 or 18, Americans are preparing for a summer of greater  immunity and looser restrictions. A pandemic-free life is on the horizon. A recent Axios-Ipsos poll found that during the first week of March, 44% of Americans reported visiting friends or relatives, and only 13% reported self-quarantining, a decline of 6% since February. 

With Americans slowly resuming pre-coronavirus activities, it’s easy to become too focused about what we can do after receiving a vaccine, such as seeing friends and family unmasked and dining indoors. However, with this new freedom comes an obligation to stay cautious and continue to maintain COVID-safe behaviors in this period of widespread vaccination. To reduce anxiety surrounding a return to normal life, we must slowly prepare ourselves for a post-pandemic lifestyle. We can do so by forming small gatherings with those who trust, setting boundaries with others and realizing that some elements of our previous lives, like disregard for hygienic practices, will not follow us in this new era.

New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines allow fully vaccinated individuals to gather in small groups, unmasked and indoors, for extended periods of time. This change is extremely important, as it marks Americans’ ability to safely gather in normal environments for the first time since the pandemic began. Though exciting, it’s crucial to remember that we still shouldn’t meet all of our friends together as if the virus were nonexistent. The COVID-19 death rate in the U.S. has dramatically decreased, but the case rate increased by 19% over the last two weeks. This shows that merely increasing the availability of vaccines has not immediately eliminated the problem. 

To ease into a pandemic-free life, we must start small. Practically, that means slowly widening our in-person social circles, testing the waters to see if such gatherings are safe. There will be initial discomfort when meeting someone without personal protective equipment, as studies have shown vaccinated individuals can still contract COVID-19. Thus, we must be careful when returning to normal life by gradually engaging in previously risky activities like dining indoors, meeting others in a small setting without masks or traveling far from home.  

The Axios-Ipsos poll also reported a 9% increase in friend and relative visits between April 11 and April 16 and a 12% increase in the number of individuals who have gone out to eat since March 2020. As many of our vaccinated peers take more risks, we must remember our right to set boundaries and ask our close contacts to avoid endangering our health through their actions. Since last semester, students at Emory have been partying and placing themselves in dangerous, crowded situations. It’s easy to dismiss our peers’ actions to preserve relationships with them, but partying, clubbing and large gatherings are still inexcusable. The vaccine’s efficacy is high, but it is not perfect. To keep ourselves, our friends and our communities safe, we must continue to enforce and follow guidelines strictly. Despite how disoriented we may feel, we must remember that continuing to practice social distancing, wear masks in public spaces and limit our social circles will help expedite our return to a normal life.

Over the last year, we have seen our peers openly neglect public health guidelines. As a result of these damaging behaviors, some friendships and relationships might have faded. Many of our friends have become no more than acquaintances, and that’s a depressing reality. But the friends who continued to reach out to us even when in-person gatherings were unsafe and found ways to text, FaceTime or call to stay in touch are the people we should want in our lives after this pandemic ends. If someone did not want to interact with you in a safe setting, it is probably best to end that friendship and surround yourself with more responsible people. Your mental and physical health is more important than having a lot of friends. As Americans have faced sharply deteriorating mental health this year, we owe it to ourselves to do what is best for us and only foster the friendships that COVID-19 has failed to destroy. Otherwise, we could come out of this experience in much worse shape than we started it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly one of the worst experiences I have endured and has had a deeply negative impact on my mental and physical health. Returning to campus this year meant navigating both virtual and in-person interactions with my peers and feeling like a stranger in a place that I called home only a few months ago. The first few months definitely gave Americans a much-needed break from the bustle of normal life and a transition to a healthier lifestyle. However, the lack of physical activity, heightened social anxiety and increased fear of being in public spaces resulting from this pandemic are seriously damaging to the health of the American people. We cannot forget the children and families that have suffered from social isolation, death and disease in this past year, no matter how painful it is to remember. Therefore, as we slowly emerge from this pandemic into a more normal life, it is only right that we leave the negative aspects of our old lives where they belong: in the past. Break off the friendships that bring you no joy. Continue to foster your current relationships with small, safe and well-planned gatherings. Avoid large groups and reckless activities. Protect those who have not had the privilege of receiving a vaccine yet and try to limit social gatherings as much as possible. 

In the last year, I have lost some friends, gained others and formed closer bonds with my family by keeping my circles small. Now that vaccination rates are rising, I cannot wait to get back to a more normal life. This opportunity is something we should be grateful for: a real chance to end COVID-19 and usher in a new era of prosperity, happiness, and freedom. Let’s not mess it up. 

Sara Khan (23C) is from Fairfax, Virginia.