A strange phenomenon has begun to occur in big cities, particularly Los Angeles and New York. Inklings of the behavior started to appear on my Instagram Stories weeks ago—people, three to 10 deep, hanging out in public, drinking in groups, eating in restaurants. I have to assume the individuals at these gatherings were aware there's a deadly pandemic still ravaging the country, as some were wearing masks, yet many are choosing to forget the other measures being asked of us to prevent the spread of coronavirus. And it really is a choice.
New York City entered phase 1 of the reopening process on June 8, allowing construction work and curbside or in-store pick-up at retailers. While Phase 2 is slated for June 22—opening up outdoor dining, barbershops, and salons, as well as additional retail and other services—and Los Angeles is in Phase 3—allowing zoos, aquariums, and music, film, and TV production to resume business—it hasn't stopped experts from questioning the speed of reopening as a public health concern. Simultaneously, many denizens of these cities are fully abandoning social distancing and self-isolation guidelines, seemingly believing that these reopenings signal the end of the virus itself. In LA, an underground dance party drew about 100 people last week. That same day, St. Mark's Place in New York City was crowded with mostly unmasked people raging as a New Orleans-style jazz band played live outside a local bar. It looked like a block party, not a city heeding and grieving the hundreds of thousands of residents sickened (and nearly 20,000 killed) by a deadly pandemic.
I'm not exactly sure when it started, but this disparity between awareness and personal behavior has progressively become common on my timeline. Weeks ago, I sent friends screenshots of an ex-boyfriend's Instagram Stories in which he goes from decrying the government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis to a video of him partying with friends on a boat, no masks in sight. I've seen acquaintances post about relatives struggling with coronavirus, admitting that at first they didn't take the virus seriously, only to see them follow up with social media posts at the beach, drinking and laughing with a PPE-free group of friends. I've heard of containing multitudes, but, uh, that ain't it.
It all came to a head on Saturday afternoon, when a friend and I met up for a social-distanced hang. Masks on, we walked to a nearby bar that was empty, got frozen watermelon margarita road sodas, and headed to a park, where we sat for a few hours soaking up the sun while keeping to opposite ends of my large picnic blanket. We used hand sanitizer liberally and frequently, and avoided all touch. It felt comforting to feel a sense of normalcy again, even if it had to be adjusted for the current conditions. Those are easy sacrifices, though, when you consider the consequences (i.e. dying, or someone else dying because you're an asshole). About a hundred feet away, we saw a picnic table full of people celebrating a birthday. For a moment I thought nothing of it, until it came back to me, like a memory triggered from hearing a song or seeing a Hyundai Sonata or whatever else gets the brain remembering things: This isn't normal anymore.
Then, I suddenly heard chants of "no justice, no peace." Hundreds of protestors marched through the park, following the paved pathway to meet at the monument in the center of the park. It was a strange collision of the world we're now living in, and the layers of cognitive dissonance that are spreading throughout our collective consciousness in various degrees. To see these gatherings—myself and my friend cautiously catching a fade at the park, a large cluster of people abandoning concern for an afternoon of celebration, and protestors fighting for a greater good despite fears of illness and brutalization from police—made me realize the mental gymnastics we're all performing out of fear or necessity.
Simply Psychology explains that cognitive dissonance "refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance." Meaning, we do not-great shit, convince ourselves why we have to do the not-great shit, and then, when we can feel your own brain dragging us to filth, we quiet the demons by reminding ourselves that surely, we're actually a Good Person who just had to do some not-great shit. It's how society got both reality TV stars and certain breeds of Nazi sympathizers.
For protestors, there are dueling conflicting attitudes and behaviors: protecting oneself and others during a pandemic, and protecting and fighting for Black people in the face of racial injustice. To do one, the other has to be sacrificed, even if participants are taking precautions like wearing face masks, using hand sanitizer, and staying home if they have any symptoms. When I chose to protest these past weeks, it all came down to a simple fact: I have health insurance. I can afford to put my body on the line in the service of an important fight, because I have the privilege of a medical safety net. But for others, and for the drunken partiers convening and raging like it's pandemic Spring Break even when they know they shouldn't according to the pleas of health experts, it's bafflingly irresponsible. So many people are inexplicably getting comfortable, and dropping their guard too damn low.
The reminders of the time we're living in are everywhere—on signs in storefronts, in the masked faces on the street, in the daily push notifications—so seeing such a large number of people, both in real life and online, blatantly contradict themselves is surreal and upsetting. It boggles the mind, especially when coming from people who ostensibly know better. Do they believe they're immune in some way? How many of these people are getting regularly tested for COVID-19? Perhaps a positive antibody result has led some to believe that they're impervious to coronavirus, despite the fact that experts say that may not be the case. Are the people crowding restaurants and throwing backyard parties with dozens of friends and family considering their forays outside of the stifling bounds of quarantine a little treat? Something so small that it's probably harmless?
It's understanding to deeply grieve for normalcy—to yearn for the joy that comes with being drunk with your friends, laughing at a bar, gossiping at a restaurant. The act of communing over food and drink is ancient, and beautiful, and above all, really fun. But if it means you and all your friends end up with COVID after one night of getting shithoused at a Florida Irish Pub, would it be worth it? Imagine being willing to risk it all for a pint of semi-cold Guinness. Wild!
The anti-mask, pro-reopening brigade is loud and misled, but so are those who are crying online and in person about the horrible impacts of COVID only to turn around and put others at risk out of a sense of personal entitlement or willingness to allow themselves a pass. Offering our patronage to small businesses like bars and restaurants is absolutely important, especially when so many across the country are faced with the difficult choice of having to open prematurely and putting their staff at risk of contracting COVID or lose their livelihood and their ability to pay their staff. The government has done far too little to help these workers, but there are ways we can help support them besides by crowding their tables and pretending that Everything Is Fine, when the numbers show that we're still in a very bad place. So instead of choosing to forget, instead of choosing to pretend that we're safe just because their doors are reopening, consider getting takeout, or buying merch. Bars and restaurants can still be supported in full, in a safe way.
The normal we knew is gone. Humans have had to evolve for their survival since literally forever. Refusing to do so is a danger to all. It's time to adapt to a new reality.