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The Great Unsettledness, Revisited

Fading hopes of a fading pandemic.
August 20, 2021
The Great Unsettledness, Revisited
An aerial view shows people gathered inside painted circles on the grass encouraging social distancing at Dolores Park in San Francisco, California on May 22, 2020 amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty)

In mid-June, it looked like we might be on a straight path to beating the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The number of new daily cases had dropped to the lowest level since the start of the first wave. The vaccination campaign seemed to be working. Some people were worrying about “reentry anxiety”—the awkwardness of resuming work and social life in something like a pre-pandemic way. I wrote here about the “Great Unsettledness,” the widespread sense of trepidation and unease related to the liminality we were in and the many disruptions to commerce and warpings of culture.

What a difference two months—and another 25,000 deaths—make. The daily death rate is shooting back up as the more highly transmissible Delta variant spreads. For the vaccinated, the worst case is no longer very bad, although the possibility of “long COVID” has not been ruled out for those who come down with breakthrough infections. However, in some states with lower vaccination rates, the disease is overwhelming health care services. And according to a team of European modelers, the situation we’re in now—with lots of people vaccinated but a large subset of the population not yet vaccinated, and with masking, social distancing, and other “non-pharmaceutical interventions” being relaxed in many places—is the exact circumstance that makes it more likely vaccine-resistant strains will emerge.

So the notion that a “snap back” to February 2020 is waiting around the corner feels less and less likely. There’s serious talk of the pandemic ending not in eradication of COVID-19 but in endemicity. With each extra day the pandemic goes on, the likelihood of a clean ending diminishes.

On the political right, some people believe we’re entering a permanent era of antisocial technocratic micro-management: “Masks and lockdowns forever!” That takes things much too far, but it does seem likely that after the acute phase of the COVID-19 crisis finally passes, there will in fact be a new, or at least somewhat different, disposition of things. It’s important, then, to think about, and shape, what that ending might be.

For example, one thing we should resist is the subtle transformation of state lines into something like borders between different countries, and the normalization of restrictions on internal movement. This is one of the most overlooked civil liberties issues at stake during the pandemic. Several states in 2020, most notably the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut governors’ Tri-State Travel Advisory, attempted to require quarantine-or-test regimes for out-of-state visitors; New York required covered travelers to fill out a form; New Jersey’s language stopped short of framing the advisory as having legal force. In Hawaii, where such restrictions are obviously more feasible, they remain in force for the unvaccinated. These measures might have fallen into “necessary evil” territory in the worst moments of the pandemic, and the temptation to resume them may grow if disparities between states’ vaccination rates grow. As a general matter, however, they violate both popular and constitutional understandings of American liberty.

Despite early hopes that the pandemic might spark social solidarity and national unity, it has turbocharged division. So another dynamic we should oppose—and police in ourselves—is further fracturing of the country into groups that map onto politics or class: say, people who adopt precautions like mask-wearing as permanent and those who sneer at them; people who regularly eat at McDonald’s (working-class families) and those who don’t (affluent people for whom foodie-ism and health concerns overlap); people who lean into the comforts of family and people who fret over the difficulty of raising kids in such an environment.

Other long-term changes we may face are more complicated. Consider changes in dining preferences and concepts. I might enjoy my all-you-can-eat buffets, but the restaurant industry (concerned about liability) and consumers (concerned about safety) have shifted practices over the last year and a half. Some fast-food places have been drive-through-only for so long that they may never reopen their seating areas. Buffets and other self-serve establishments were hit especially hard by lockdowns, and their levels of waste are tough to swallow as food prices rise. One can imagine that, just as the advent of environmentalism led to a taming of American roadside architecture—out with the flying-saucer roofs and neon cowboys and pitched overhangs, in with the cedar shingles—restaurant dining may become somewhat less common, and somewhat less ostentatious.

There’s also the widely reported difficulty of filling jobs, especially in restaurants and retail. This phenomenon has persisted despite free vaccines and elevated pay scales. In fact, people are resigning at an elevated rate, leading some analysts to dub the current labor situation “the Great Resignation.” Some of this is likely the result of unemployment benefits, but there seem to be deeper shifts underway in the labor market. It’s also possible that service workers will come out of this with a little more bargaining power, and that many will do their best not to return to the sector.

On the white-collar end, permanent or at least medium-term changes to land use and commuting seem more and more likely, as some employers push back their September office reopenings and school closures rear their head again. Longer but less frequent commutes, or permanent work-from-home arrangements, already seem to be starting a new wave of growth at or beyond the exurban edge of major metro areas. In other words, our labor and economic issues are also land-use and transportation issues. Are cities prepared for this? Are communities caught between the urban core and exploding exurbs ready for it? A move might be temporary, but alterations in things like land use, tax revenues, and road capacity will cast a long shadow.

All of this and more—will handshakes survive? business travel?—is uncertain. A return to “normal” may still be possible, even if it isn’t quite a snapback. But many people have been forced to rethink, or had the opportunity to rethink, their careers, their salary requirements, their family time, and their true needs. It’s one thing to do what you’ve always done; it’s another thing to go back to that after seeing what else is possible.

Remember the narrative earlier this year that summer might be mostly normal, but that fall would likely be difficult? (Turns out, that simply happened a month or two earlier than predicted, with the current Delta wave.) My wife and I were at a crab-leg buffet in Virginia Beach on Memorial Day weekend, when Virginia followed updated CDC guidance and essentially lifted all public health precautions. The restaurant was filled to capacity and there was a line out the door. Whatever the virus does later this year, it will be very, very hard to stuff that sense of liberation back in the bottle.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).