Letter from Vermont: Let’s not blow it now


Over the past year I’ve had the very weird experience of living in a place that has handled the pandemic pretty well. Here in Vermont, our governor, Phil Scott, holds press conferences three times a week. They play on the radio and television, and he and the state’s leaders in health care, education, and economics answer questions from journalists. Scott is not a beloved politician by any means, but there’s a near universal grudging sense of respect for his leadership through Covid-19.

People disagree about specific state policies, and it’s practically a party game these days to point out inconsistencies in the thinking around what can be open, how many people can gather, where masks are required, and why colleges are open, but some elementary schools are not. In general though, at least where I live, people wear masks. They social distance. They do their best to follow the rules and protect themselves and the larger community.

So talking to friends and colleagues in other parts of the world with much higher rates of infection, where the vaccine rollout has been slower and more chaotic, is a constant exercise in cognitive dissonance.

A friend in London whose children just returned to school after a months-long lockdown told me that no one wears masks when socializing outdoors. My six-year-old nephew in Tennessee has received multiple invitations to indoor birthday parties involving 20-plus families. A colleague in New York haunted pharmacies until she got a vaccine appointment, while other people in my life refuse to get vaccinated, and seem itching to fight about it.

Throughout the pandemic the idea of how we follow our own sense of what is correct—factually, scientifically, and morally—while respecting the boundaries of others has never been far from my mind. I’m not naturally a rule follower, but I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have my children in school full-time this year. That has only been possible by following a very strict set of rules, including daily temperature checks, universal masking, outdoor-only socializing, then, for a incredibly difficult period between Thanksgiving and the end of February, almost no socializing at all.

We’ve bent the rules occasionally, spending time indoors at my mom’s house, and having masked outdoor playdates with neighbors. But what I always come back to are the twinned ideas of community and consent. I recently met up with a dad I had only texted with previously, so that our kids could ride bikes. I’m comfortable with unmasked play outdoors. He’s not. So the kids masked up. I allowed my three-year-old to ditch her mask because she was having a hard time wearing that and her bike helmet and I did a risk calculation that she was more likely to get a head injury than Covid. Later I realized that he felt uncomfortable with that decision.

It’s possible to be scientifically correct (Covid is very unlikely to spread outdoors) and emotionally wrong at the same time. Me being right is not more important than other people’s boundaries.

We’ve agreed to set clearer masking ground rules for the next time we all hang out. I may not concur with his risk assessment, but I want this family to be part of my community, so I’m willing to change my behavior to respect their boundaries. It’s not a zero sum game—it’s a conversation between humans. Hashing out consent and what feels safe to everyone is a skill, and one we don’t get to practice very often. Greater sensitivity around these dynamics, and the ability to model them for our children, feels like something we can carry forward out of this mess.

This is a weird moment. I feel less stuck in a Covid quagmire of isolation and despair than I did a month ago. Warm weather, sunshine, and the fact that my mom and grandmother are fully vaccinated all contribute to that sense of well-being. But I’m also worried about the state of journalism, and my future job prospects, the possibility of another big wave of infections, and the low-level stress of not really knowing what “the new normal” is going to be like. I want to ditch masks and go to the movies as much as anyone, but please, let’s not blow this now.

I don’t have any clear answers. If we’ve all gotten some practice at having hard conversations with empathy and grace, have learned to identify and balance our own needs with those of our larger community, and have become more interested in deep connection, then I have faith it’s not all for the worse. Stay safe, whatever that means to you, while recognizing that may not look the same for everyone.

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