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14 Months Into the Pandemic, What Do We Miss Most?

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The new survey found that Americans most miss being able to attend large, in-person social gatherings such as sporting events, weddings, and concerts. Image: iStock

The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) represents a seismic shift in what is deemed “safe behavior” for vaccinated individuals. Following a year of public health protocols that uprooted so much of our daily lives, the announcement is a welcome change for many Americans that are eager for a degree of normalcy more than 14 months into the pandemic.

Yet with more than one-half of the population completely unvaccinated, dangerous coronavirus variants surging around the world, and an average of over 30,000 cases each day in the U.S., much uncertainty remains. For the next several months — and possibly years — what this “new normal” looks like for many Americans will remain unclear. In the meantime, understanding what particular long-restricted activities people look forward to resuming can help policy makers determine how to prioritize new guidelines.

To do that, our team at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness collaborated with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in a national survey to determine high priority activities that would reinforce the idea that we are making meaningful progress toward a post-pandemic “new” normal.

From a nationally representative survey of 1,266 U.S. adults, a few key themes emerged. The three most consistent areas the general public seemed most intent on returning to were:

  1. Large, in-person social gatherings (such as weddings, sporting events, concerts, or theater);
  2. The option to shed public health protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing; and
  3. The ability to travel freely.

Nearly one in three Americans responded that they most miss large in-person events. But the survey also highlighted some significant differences in what Americans most looked forward to when grouped by political affiliation.

For instance, 17% of Americans — the second-largest majority — indicated that they most looked forward to not needing to follow COVID-19 restrictions such as mask-wearing and social distancing. But looking closer, 30% of Trump voters said this is what they looked forward to the most, while just 9% of Biden voters said the same. Substantial differences also emerged along age and generational lines, with younger Americans (between the ages of 18 to 39) indicating that they most missed the ability to travel freely nearly twice as often as those over the age of 74.

As policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels — as well as decision-makers in the private sector — piece together new policies in line with guidance from the CDC, understanding what Americans most want will be crucial to safely navigate this uncertain, highly dynamic time of transition. The data captured in this polling brief can help guide policymakers in their understanding of which societal aspirations should be prioritized to signal important steps in finally getting beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, an enduring crisis which has turned life in America and around the globe upside down.

It is our recommendation that in order to safely allow Americans to attend large, in-person social events, travel freely, and shed public health protocols, policymakers should consider developing and implementing mandatory vaccination checks in tandem with public and private sector entities that draw large crowds. Vaccination campaigns must also continue to target at-risk areas and underserved communities, including those that are newly eligible for vaccinations such as children and adolescents.

Finally, it is important to recognize that as long as there are severe outbreaks in other parts of the world, for instance in South Asia or South America, nowhere — including the United States — can be confident that it will remain safe or avoid another major surge. In other words, steps to reflect progress in overcoming the pandemic are important to the national psyche, but we must proceed with caution, being sure not to establish false hopes that we are, in May 2021, fully and definitively yet free from the threat of SARS-CoV-2.

Take a closer look at the report and accompanying data here.

Irwin Redlener is director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

Sean Hansen is a staff associate at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

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3 years ago

It’s unconscionable that the CDC abdicated responsibility to provide more granular guidance to states and explaining how to calibrate vaccine rates and infection levels to herd immunity thresholds.

By not giving advance notice to governors (or the WH for that matter) businesses heard what they wanted to hear and began issuing the ‘all clear’ with few implementing any type of vaccine verification system and relying on the honor code.

It’s now too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

Certain businesses (retail, gyms, restaurants, theaters, sporting venues) should have continued mask mandates until they could come up with a plan to identify who is vaxxed and who is not. No unvaxxed people are going to voluntarily mask up indoors when there are no consequences not to — and research already tells us they were least likely to get vaccinated or wear masks to begin with.

The CDC claimed this would create “incentive” for people to get vaccinated, but that doesn’t seem to be happening, at least in NYC. Governor Cuomo already said that vax rates continued to trend downward after the CDC’s announcement.

Gyms are of particular concern given shared space, equipment, and enclosed studios.

Are ventilation guidelines being followed? Most lowered capacity when they reopened so that may not have mattered. But now at 100%?

You also have maintenance staff and others who are disproportionately low income and people of color. Many live in multi-generational homes. Why should they be exposed to unvaccinated people who may be less than honest about their vax status?

Many members have children too young to be vaccinated and/or are caring for elderly parents. Others may have underlying risks (ie history of cancer or other issues) and while vaccinated, may have failed to create adequate antibodies. Now they’ve created unnecessary risk for their members and staff.

By relying on the ‘honor system’ (aka ‘don’t ask, don’t tell) the onus of wearing a mask indoors has shifted from the expectation that unvaccinated people will do the right thing, to people who were responsible enough to get vaccinated. How is this okay? Isn’t this the opposite of the picture the CDC was trying to create?

Now think about schools and daycare — will teachers, bus drivers, aides, cafeteria workers, janitors voluntarily wear masks if they are unvaccinated? Another set of risks.

What’s most insulting of all — venues such as MSG, Barclays, City Winery, and Radio City (and likely a few others) have all committed to utilizing Excelsior Pass or other vaccine verification apps. How is it that these places care more about public health and safety than a fitness facility that purports to care about members’ well-being?

Before anyone puts me on blast, I’m not suggesting masks be worn indefinitely. But it certainly could have been delayed until vax rates improve (NYC is still only at 52% for first doses). At a bare minimum, gyms should limit indoor, in-person classes to vaccinated only — and there was a very easy way to do this.

Not requiring proof is totally irresponsible and unvaxxed people are NOT going to voluntarily mask up —

It also creates risk for those with young kids or taking care of elderly parents, and anyone who has an underlying condition who may not have produced adequate antibodies.