Over late night cups of tea during finals season, one of my housemates and I discussed our hopes and plans for the summer. She would be vacationing in Florida with her boyfriend and going on a trip home to Seattle. The talk of travel and social activities was exciting; however, there was a lingering uncertainty about just how “normal” life would be during the summer. When I described my hopes to be back in The Big House by next fall, my housemate admitted that she wasn’t sure when she would feel fully comfortable in crowds again, even though she is fully vaccinated.
Less than one month later, new public health guidelines have equipped us with more knowledge on what this summer will look like and how to navigate travel and social activities. On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that in most cases, fully vaccinated people no longer need to practice social distancing or mask-wearing. For U-M students, there is a clashing mix of excitement and apprehension surrounding the shift in guidelines, particularly concerning what it means for returning to a sense of normalcy in time for summer vacation.
I talked to several students to hear their thoughts surrounding travel and social activities this summer. Is there a hesitance to go back to things like concerts and parties, as my housemate expressed in our conversation nearly a month ago? Or are students ready to get back into the world with full force? I expected to hear a mixture of enthusiasm and hope for post-COVID life, but I was also prepared to encounter some concerns or anxiety about the transition.
LSA senior Sophie Einbund described feeling immense excitement for her travel plans in the upcoming months, though she also expressed some uneasiness over the balance between having fun with being safe and responsible.
“I don’t get too nervous when it comes to traveling, but I guess in terms of traveling during COVID-19, it is somewhat nerve-wracking even though I’m vaccinated,” Einbund said during our Zoom conversation. “It is frustrating to wear a mask and hope that other people are vaccinated as well.”
In July, she plans on going to Miami with a friend, and in August her family is flying to Hawaii. She mentioned that Florida will most likely be a vacation hotspot, but she is hoping she will be protected from COVID-19 after previously contracting the virus and more recently getting the vaccine.
“I think I was pretty opposed to traveling when COVID started, but now that people … are vaccinated, or obviously more than prior stages when there were no vaccines, I definitely feel more comfortable traveling myself or for other people to travel,” Einbund said.
Engineering junior Thomas Dokas also plans on traveling this summer. He will be visiting South Carolina with his family.
“My entire family has been vaccinated, so we are mostly not concerned about it,” Dokas said. “But if any of us weren’t, then I think that would have become a big issue.”
He and his family members are among the over 4 million Michiganders who have had at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. For Dokas, being vaccinated plays a huge role in terms of safety and comfort with traveling.
“Personally, I’m not terribly concerned about (traveling) because I know how to keep myself safe from that sort of thing,” Dokas said. “I’ve been doing it for over a year now, but it’ll be interesting to see how other people start to behave.”
On the flip side, LSA freshman Maggie Sterling questioned the necessity of travel in general. While she will be traveling from Texas to Michigan when classes start in the fall, she has her reservations.
“Personally, I’m not traveling for unnecessary reasons just because it still seems crazy, and planes have these enclosed spaces,” Sterling said.
These feelings, she noted, account for her own actions and concerns and not her judgment of others.
“I have known friends and family that have traveled during the pandemic with unnecessary travel, and I definitely found it hard for me to tell them not to because everyone makes the decisions that they feel (are) best for themselves,” Sterling said.
As of right now, the CDC still requires face coverings for public transportation, including airplanes. Still, there could be some hesitance over such excursions.
Dr. Jon Zelner, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, talked to me about his recent experience traveling to New York. Dr. Zelner is vaccinated, but with two young children not yet able to get vaccinated, there was added risk to consider.
“I drove up there by myself because I was not comfortable getting on a plane,” he said. “I would be fully masked, but the idea of sitting in an airplane with lots of people in close proximity, I just couldn’t handle it and it didn’t feel safe yet, even though this is one of these things where it’s probably just fine.”
Dr. Zelner emphasized it could be a difficult transition for some people, one that may just take time.
“Certainly a year and a half ago (safety measures) seemed like bizarre things to do, like to sit six feet apart and keep our mouths covered, or if you have somebody at your house and keep the windows open in the dead of winter … you know, all these things felt kind of apocalyptic,” Dr. Zelner continued. “And it’s nice to let them go, but I think they become such a habit that to just focus back on our lives can be hard to do.”
Dr. Josh Petrie, also an assistant professor in the Public Health School’s Epidemiology Department, agreed.
“People have been scared and it’s been a tough year. Even if we can start to get back to normal, it’s going to take time to get used to that,” Dr. Petrie said.
Dr. Petrie noted a rising and falling of cases across the country throughout the past year. As for Michigan, the state has at times led the nation in cases and hospitalizations, which are finally going down.
“Michigan has been pretty high, but we’re dropping pretty quickly now, so I think another piece of it is watching what the activity is in your local area and basing your behaviors around that,” Dr. Petrie said, noting steps students can take to limit apprehension. “If there’s high transmission, maybe you go back to wearing a mask, but luckily we’re kind of on the decline.”
During our conversations, Dr. Zelner and Dr. Petrie both expressed concern about whether the numbers will continue to go down as people begin to travel, visit friends, and socialize more overall. Additionally, while students now seem more comfortable and excited to see more friends, it might take some time to become comfortable with larger groups, the ones my housemate expressed concern over less than a month ago.
Einbund said she has been more lenient than she was last semester in terms of who she interacts with and how many people she sees at once, but she still hasn’t been with over 10 people together. She mentioned she wouldn’t be surprised if some people were still cautious of meeting in large groups.
“These concerns will fade away as we grow more comfortable interacting with larger groups,” Einbund said. “We’ve never had to think about that until the pandemic — it was just like second nature to hang out with as many people as you can or go to concerts or bars or whatever. But now that we’ve had a hiatus in our normal life, to get back to normal and not have these concerns is going to take time and exposure to things that we used to think were just normal.”
In response to hesitance about going out into crowds and resuming life as normal, Public Policy senior Tuhin Chakraborty expressed feeling more relief than fear.
“My lifestyle changed dramatically with the pandemic,but it never felt right, like sitting in a room all day or whatnot,” Chakraborty said. “So I feel pressure to resume normalcy, but it’s more of a self-imposed one than anything else.”
For Chakraborty, seeing others go ahead with social activities has been a source of encouragement and hope for the future.
“With regard to social activities, I do plan on going back on campus and meeting with friends,” he said.
COVID-19 guidelines from the CDC stipulate that vaccinated individuals can resume the activities that they did before the pandemic, with safety levels for various activities noted on the CDC website.
Aside from shopping and hanging out with friends, Sterling is excited to return to extracurricular activities such as theatre.
“Now I’m auditioning for a show in a couple weeks, and I’ll definitely be around a lot more people at once, but I’ll be vaccinated and a lot of people will,” Sterling said. “My theater is still recommending masks and stuff too.”
Dokas is also hoping for a more fun summer than last year.
“I’ve gone to the bars a few times. I like how they have it set up right now, where everything’s all spaced out. I plan to do more of that,” he said.
Aside from hanging out with friends and going to the movies, he plans on participating in plenty of outdoor activities as the weather warms up. He noted that he doesn’t feel as though there is pressure to participate in social activities, but he also doesn’t want to miss out.
Dokas was generally happy with the recent CDC announcement, but had some reservations about the timing and what it means for safety moving forward.
“There doesn’t really seem to be any commitment to trying to verify that people are actually vaccinated,” he said. “I think a lot of people are going to be saying they’re vaccinated but they’re not vaccinated, and that might cause issues.”
Dokas observed that the University has measures including ResponsiBLUE and self-reporting for COVID-19 vaccinations, but he is worried that keeping mask-wearing and vaccinations in check on a grander scale could become a more contentious problem.
Dr. Zelner shared Dokas’s mixture of happiness, surprise and hesitance over the new CDC guidelines.
“It is useful to point out to people that there’s a benefit to getting these vaccines that allow you to engage in life with less risk,” Dr. Zelner said. At the same time, he warned that they could provide false pretense for people to participate in unsafe activities.
Going back to resuming activities as normal is entwined with a reduction in the need to wear masks. For Chakraborty, this is a welcome change.
“I will ditch my mask as soon as it is responsible for me to do so,” he said.
He added that he wears a mask for safety, but he doesn’t like wearing a mask and doesn’t think many other people do. When I asked him whether he believes masks will stick around, he said he anticipates the practice in the U.S. will largely disappear.
“In my experience, there’s a general adverseness that Americans have to wearing masks, and that will prevail,” he said.
“I mean, it’s a really simple thing to put on a mask,” she said. “But at the same time, I’ve definitely suffered this myself, being so frustrated and feeling like, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I can’t wear a mask, I can’t look at them, I don’t want to buy any more.’”
In our conversation, Einburd said she believes people will become increasingly less tolerant of mask-wearing now that there are more lenient guidelines, resulting in face coverings gradually fading away.
Sterling agreed the practice of mask-wearing will decrease, but she doesn’t believe it will fully disappear.
“I think by the end of this year you’ll definitely see fewer people wearing them outside, but I feel like a lot of people are going to continue,” she said.
We talked about other countries where it’s common to wear masks in public during the flu season, and she thought it made sense for the practice to continue if people choose to.
“Even if it is just like a cold or a flu, it’s something you still don’t want to pass to anybody,” Sterling said. “I don’t think (mask-wearing) will fully go away because we’ve passed through flu season, and you have not heard of many people getting the flu.”
Just a few weeks ago, I went for a walk with a friend who I hadn’t seen in person for nearly a year. As we strolled through Kerrytown and ventured further away from campus, the conversation paused with awkward silence. Squinting in the bright light, she asked if it would be okay for her to take her mask off. “Oh, of course,” I replied. The transition from masked to maskless was seamless, yet it wasn’t until nearly 30 minutes into our walk that we took them off.
This wasn’t the first time I was challenged with deciphering another’s comfort levels in regard to safety practices, whether it be going maskless or resuming close contact like hugging. Such interactions are happening more and more around people I haven’t seen in a while, inevitably resulting in conversations about the transition to normalcy. On the walk with my friend, we wore masks out of politeness, but it was also by habit. For Ann Arbor students, any trip to campus required mask coverings throughout the past school year, leaving the practice ingrained. It wasn’t until this past month that the University updated its face-covering policies to permit individuals to go mask-free while outdoors on U-M campuses.
For Sterling, while she is excited to get back to more “normal” social activities, social courtesy and concern for her community are things she will keep in mind moving forward.
“I get really scared that I’m gonna pass it to someone and not know,” she said. “That’s just been a big worry.”
I can relate to Sterling’s sentiments. I’ve known several people who passed away from COVID-19 or are still dealing with complications from the virus. Losing a close loved one to COVID-19 — my grandmother — was extremely difficult for me, and this past year I’ve been concerned about spreading the virus and causing someone else the same pain. Having an autoimmune disease myself, I also empathize with those who are nervous about their own health, especially if they are unable to get vaccinated.
Still, I must confess I was pleasantly surprised by the CDC announcement. With my study abroad plans cancelled last summer and my junior year being relatively isolated this past year, I have been hoping for a more normal senior year starting in the fall. As someone who got the vaccine, it is also nice knowing I can resume more social activities this summer while still being responsible in regard to the health and safety of myself and others. Plus, the CDC announcement seems to indicate positive news for the state of COVID-19 cases in the country.
Dr. Petrie, whose research interests include the transmission of respiratory virus infections and influenza vaccine effectiveness, is anticipating less explosive spread in communities with higher levels of vaccination, though we’re not at a point of herd immunity where the virus is going away.
“Often these herd immunity thresholds are designed around eliminating a pathogen, and it’s going to be very difficult to get to that with COVID-19, but we are probably close to enough levels of vaccination and people being infected previously that it’s becoming less likely that we’ll have big outbreaks again. The overall coverage of vaccination in the population even protects unvaccinated people to some degree,” he explained.
Moving forward, some students are excited to take off the mask and resume social activities per CDC guidelines, but they also respect other people’s decisions not to.
“Personally, I was just fully vaccinated a few days ago,” Chakraborty said. He added that hopefully he won’t be wearing masks for much longer, but if people choose to still wear masks, he believes it’s their right to do so.
Einburd shared similar sentiments.
“I think that whatever everyone’s comfortable with is what they should do,” she said. “They should live their life, so there’s nothing wrong with continuing to wear a mask if that’s what people think is necessary.”
Sterling shared her hopes that people respect her decisions as life begins to return to the way it was pre-pandemic.
“I’m just being respectful of everyone for what they’re choosing to do. I don’t think anyone will say anything to me if they know that I’m vaccinated and I still wear masks sometimes,” she said. “It’s just up to your discretion.”
Along with hopes for a transition back into “normalcy,” the general consensus among U-M students seems to be that people should take whatever precautions they are comfortable with. At the same time, U-M students and professionals believe vaccinations will play a key role. Dr. Petrie ended our interview by stressing the importance of getting vaccinated as we continue to transition out of pandemic-mode.
“It really just comes back to getting vaccinated,” he said. “It’s the best way to protect yourself. It’s the best way to protect other people around you. College-aged students are fairly low risk of severe outcomes in general, but everyone’s got maybe older parents, grandparents, people like your professors, that you want to protect.”
Hopefully, nationwide increases in vaccination rates will help characterize a more normal summer and 2021-2022 school year compared to a past year riddled with COVID-19 outbreaks and campus closures. While the new CDC guidance does not automatically override mask orders issued by states, cities or local businesses, the change is a positive sign for those hoping to get back to traveling and participating in social activities with the people they love.
Statement Correspondent Elizabeth Schriner can be reached at email@example.com.