By now, it’s generally understood that we are not going to see the end of Covid on any simple timetable and that what we should expect instead is a world where the disease becomes something that we live with — as an endemic illness transformed by the combination of vaccinations, boosters and immunity from prior infection into a tolerable risk.
The conversation about how best to encourage vaccination at the margins is all about how we can hurry up and finally reach that stage. But for areas with high vaccination rates, especially, a crucial question is what happens when we get there. What does adapting permanently to endemic Covid look like in places — especially blue states, and especially their most liberal enclaves — that have relied on stringent measures whenever cases surge?
I wrote about this subject last February, before the rise of the Delta variant in the United States, when it seemed reasonable to expect the Covid emergency to give way to an attempted normalcy by summer. And even with Delta, some of the normalization that I hoped for has happened. Most blue-state schools, thankfully, are back in-person this fall. For the most part, the summer wave didn’t close churches or beaches or cancel baseball games. In New Haven, Conn., where I live, zealous masking returned after a brief early-summer idyll — but driving around New England over the past few months, I’ve found mask wearing to be pretty casual and voluntary outside the haunts of the urban haute bourgeoisie.
This gradual relaxation suggests an optimistic path to blue-state normalization, in which any winter wave turns out to be relatively mild, vaccinations are authorized for younger children and by the spring, at the latest, all mask requirements are lifted, letting kids see their classmates’ faces again and allowing adults to go to museums or ride trains or go shopping without having to breathe for hours into fabric. The endpoint of this path is an equilibrium with more voluntary masking every winter (against the flu as well as Covid), maybe some mask requirements for holiday-season travelers, but none of the permanent-emergency measures that libertarians have feared from the start.
But I can also imagine other scenarios. Last week the virologist and prolific pandemic-era tweeter Trevor Bedford speculated that the United States could see 40,000 to 100,000 deaths annually from endemic Covid. That range is vastly lower than the pandemic death rate, but it’s moderately higher than estimates for the seasonal flu and probably high enough to keep case and fatality numbers in the headlines in 2022 and beyond.
As we saw after Sept. 11, certain forms of security theater, once established, become extremely difficult to dislodge as long as there is still any arguable threat. So as long as Covid stays in the news, it’s not hard to envision masking requirements for airplanes and trains persisting far into the future, much as we still try to foil Al Qaeda by taking off our shoes for airport security lines. It’s also possible to imagine a future in which the weird emergent norm of “masks for the help but not the V.I.P.s” — visible everywhere from the Met Gala to political fund-raisers to posh hotels — becomes an expected feature of life among the blue-state upper class (as well as a potent symbol for its critics).
Then there are blue-state elementary schools, where some of the constituencies that support mask requirements may not be assuaged even after vaccines are available for younger kids. At that point, according to both polls and personal experience, there will still be lots of vaccine hesitancy among even liberal parents — and you could imagine a coalition of more Covid-fearing parents and teachers’ unions demanding masking requirements until a school hits a vaccination threshold that remains perpetually out of reach.
Already on certain college campuses you can see a version of this permanent-seeming abnormalcy. Even with vaccine requirements for faculty and students, some schools have tried to layer on miniature medical surveillance states, with constant testing and exacting masking rules. (At the University of Southern California, The Wall Street Journal reported recently, “students must leave classrooms to take a sip of water, rather than just sliding their masks down.”) Students and their parents have successfully pushed back against some of the creepier measures — a wearable “bio button” to monitor heart rates and other health indicators at one university, a location-tracking app at another. But the spirit of bio-surveillance fits in nicely with the larger trend toward a kind of supervisory progressivism in campus life, with the attempted bureaucratic regulation of speech and sex, the tech-enabled monitoring of on-campus movement and communication. And if Covid is endemic, if the risk of outbreaks persists indefinitely, it’s not clear that these biopolitical experiments will automatically fade away.
Especially since the culture of deep-blue America is caught up in the same toxic feedback loops of polarization as deep-red America. If certain forms of Republican insouciance about Covid are forged in the fires of cultural resentment, in which you reject Faucian micromanagement by ditching masks and refusing the vaccine, certain forms of liberal overregulation seem forged in fear of red American contagion — in which we just have to mask our kids indefinitely, even though many other developed countries aren’t doing it, because we need to set an example of seriousness to shame all those red-state anti-maskers.
Endemic Covid ensures that this dynamic will never simply vanish. The red-blue vaccination gap isn’t the only vaccination gap that matters, but it’s real enough. Mississippi will probably always have lower vaccination rates than Connecticut, and it’s possible to imagine an endemic future where there are more Covid cases most summers in the Republican-voting air-conditioning belt than there are in New England in the winter.
So deep-blue America will have to decide, in a world that’s postpandemic but not post-Covid, whether it wants to become the safety-above-all caricature that deep-red America has made of it — or if it can settle instead on masking a little more every December and January, a reasonable adaptation to the coronavirus experience, while otherwise leaving the age of emergency behind.