San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Many will stay inside even amid reopening
The order on March 17, 2020, was as clear as it was unprecedented: Shelter in place. The Chronicle ran a fullwidth, frontpage headline: “STAY AT HOME.”
So Emily Liu, 25, and her sister did as they were told and kept trips outside the home to a bare minimum as they followed news accounts of the mounting pandemic. “I was basically not going outside at all,” Liu says. “I just had these visions of catching it by accident.”
Now, a year later, both Liu and her sister are fully vaccinated, but not much has changed. They still wipe down the groceries they often have delivered. Liu might pick up
dinner, rather than having it delivered, but she’s eaten outside of the house only once in the past year. She did have a friend over to meet the cat she adopted, but they were careful to wear masks and remain physically distant inside. When they drank boba tea together, they did it on a windy rooftop, 6 feet apart.
Liu knows the facts — the broad protection the vaccine offers, the low transmission rates in San Francisco, the relative safety of outdoor activities — but it’s hard to shake a year’s worth of accumulated anxiety. “The facts are one thing,” she says, “and the emotions are another.” She’s not sure how to align the two — or even whether she can.
She’s not alone. As California and the Bay Area make big steps toward reopening, many people don’t feel ready to return to anything like normal. In the most recent Morning Consult tracking poll, 45% of respondents nationwide said they weren’t yet ready to return to their regular routines. A March survey by the American Psychological Association had similar findings: 46% of those polled said they didn’t feel comfortable “living life like they used to before the pandemic,” while 49% said they were feeling uneasy about adjusting to “inperson interaction once the pandemic ends.”
“If you think about what’s happening it’s like we’re being conditioned to have a phobia,” says David Spiegel, director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health. “The world outside has come to seem very dangerous because it has been. There’s something especially creepy about a virus you can’t see.”
That fear that made so much sense at the beginning of the pandemic may make less sense now, given what scientists have learned about the virus; the Centers for Disease Control recently released guidance that most outdoor and indoor activities were safe for vaccinated people, especially if masked — but it doesn’t make it any less real.
Part of the reason, Spiegel says, is that humans don’t assess risk on a purely logical level. “Your risk of dying from travel is so much greater in a car than it is a plane,” he says. “Very few people have car phobias and a lot of people have airplane phobias. … We’re not entirely rational and sometimes we misassess risk.”
At the start of the pandemic, Laurina Marcic, 36, and her family locked down hard in their Mission District home. They haven’t let up since. Marcic lives with her sister, nephew, aunt and mom, and they’re all vaccinated (except her nephew, who is too young). None of them are ready to chance even the smallest possibility that they might get COVID. “We’re an immunocompromised home,” she says.
Meanwhile, outside, people gather on the sidewalks of Valencia Street for drinks and lounge in Dolores Park. “People are always with their masks off … We feel like we’re almost forced to stay inside,” Marcic says. “We almost feel like we’re trapped within our home if we want to stay safe … it’s been a little rough.”
It’s not that she wants to keep on this way, she says. Marcic used to live for concerts — she still wants to go on that New Kids on the Block cruise that got canceled. But right now it’s difficult to feel safe, and not even the statistics sway her.
The virus is still new, Marcic says, and the changing messages as scientists learn more haven’t helped: Don’t wear a mask, do wear a mask, wear this kind of mask, wear two masks. “‘Wipe everything down.’ ‘Oh, you don’t need to wipe everything down.’ So I’m, like, what do I believe?
“I hope I get to the point where I can at least go and hug a family member.”
It’s not surprising that many people are reluctant to go out, says Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. Recently he received an email from a friend along those lines. “Of course we’d love to visit you at your outdoor fire pit in Berkeley,” they wrote. “But we’re so used to not socializing, we didn’t know how to break the habit.”
“Part of it is you just get used to being locked down.” Hinshaw says. “And even though the risk is pretty darn low, you read about India in the paper or you read about other states and the variants, and once you get into an anxious, shutdown way of being, I think it really is hard to break out (of it) because any threat seems like it could be fatal.”
Both he and Spiegel recommend starting slow and being kind to oneself. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Hinshaw says. “Small steps, social support, reinforcing that this is safe to do if everybody is vaccinated can lift you out of the doldrums and may motivate you to take another small step tomorrow or the next day.”
“Don’t be impatient with yourself if you’re feeling uncomfortable about going out,” Spiegel says. “We just spent the last year removed from normal social contact, so it will take a little while to relearn it and feel comfortable with it, and that’s OK. That fact that you’re hesitant now doesn’t mean you will be in six months.”
Liu is still waiting for the day when she’ll feel comfortable enough outside without her double masks. She’s not sure when that day will come — maybe once vaccination rates in the Bay Area are high enough and community spread has nearly vanished. But lately, she’s been thinking about the return to normal, how nice it would be to have her nails done and get her hair cut. And even that feels like progress.
“Hopefully one day I’ll go back to the world before where I’ll sit in (a boba shop) and journal for a few hours. I really miss that.”