April 14, 2021

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America’s bipolar summer

4 min read

This summer, I’ve heard, is gonna be lit. Like, parties in the streets lit, champagne towers, overflowing nightclubs, swapping lots of spit lit, Roaring 20s, making up for a lost year and a half lit. Maybe a little too lit.

Yet, at the same time, it won’t be lit at all. Some people will still be worried about illness. Others will find themselves far too financially precarious for much partying or a big, post-pandemic vacation. Still others will turn their attention to finally mourning those they’ve lost since the pandemic began, holding a proper funeral and having a long-delayed cry on an actual, physical shoulder.

Last summer we were, roughly, all in the same place: uncertain about the future, chafing under lockdowns, transfixed and alarmed by protests and riots and the law enforcement behavior which precipitated and attended them. This summer, we will be far more divided: some eager to celebrate, some still mired in apprehension, privation, and grief.

The vision of the lit summer is easily conjured. I’m conjuring it myself, in a fairly subdued, parent-of-twin-toddlers kind of way. We’ll keep having evening weekend bonfires, but soon we’ll have bigger and better gatherings, too. A cocktail party on the patio! Sprinkler parties with other kids! And outings: the zoo, museums, the mall — not the library, though, because my children definitely can’t handle having to return a newly beloved book.

For those in more, uh, flexible circumstances, my plans undoubtedly look blasé. People are ready to look extremely hot, reports The Atlantic. Exercise classes are filled to bursting, and a beauty treatment boom is anticipated: “People are already filling up the appointment books at salons and spas, preparing for a world in which being seen is once again a regular part of the human experience. Americans … are ready to go out.” As an unknown “lady on [a] plane” reportedly put it, “vaxxed and waxed, baby, I’m ready for some action.”

Action, understood a bit more broadly than she likely meant, will be available to those who want and can afford it. Many expect a dramatic economic recovery as vaccination rates grow and public health restrictions are relaxed or dropped entirely. Vacation spots will be eager to welcome visitors once again. Restaurants will roll out expanded outdoor seating. “Pre-pandemic complaints about a crowded subway car or a mediocre sandwich could be replaced by the awe of simply riding a bus or sitting in a diner,” muses Yale public health expert James Hamblin. “People might go out of their way to talk with strangers, merely to gaze upon the long-forbidden, exposed mouth of a speaking human.” Everything old is new again.

But what about those who don’t want these thrills or can’t afford them? Fear of infection will persist for some, even after we get into herd immunity territory. We may think some of this is irrational or driven by misunderstanding or misinformation, but that won’t change the fact of it. When Memorial Day kicks off the summer season, we’ll be 15 months into habits of caution, anxiety, and generally feeling weird. Habits so entrenched can be hard to break, even with excellent reason.

There’s also the reality that topline economic recovery won’t bring back most of the businesses the pandemic killed. Some industries are growing right now, but others have crumbled. Around 100,000 small businesses were thought to have permanently closed by May of last year; by this summer, it could be as many as one in every 10 or even one in three of the 31 million small companies in the United States. A number of big chains have declared bankruptcy, too, as the pandemic accelerated pre-existing shifts in retail. And there are other, less visible economic troubles, too, like the backlogged bills facing some renters and small landlords alike. The end of the pandemic will open up new and renewed economic opportunities for the people thus affected, but it won’t immediately, directly fix these losses and woes.

Nor, of course, will it undo all the other losses of the prior year and a half, included the casualties of the pandemic itself. Social distancing rules have precluded normal routines and rituals, including grieving practices — practices we need. The winding down of distancing rules will make sudden space for so much that has been skipped, suspended, or suppressed.

It will surface this summer, and what a strange summer it will be. Joy amid social rubble, pleasure strolls past empty storefronts, a wedding in one room and a funeral reception in the next. “There is a time for everything,” says the thinker of Ecclesiastes, “a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” The summer of 2021 will, intensely, be all those times at once.

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