Life in a post-vaccine world: Are we ready to give up our space?

May 3, 2021

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People have become accustomed to having more personal space after more than a year of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Think about it: Can you even remember the last time you felt a stranger’s breath over your shoulder or elbowed your way between two people looking for a spot at a crowded bar? And if you’ve been to an airport or train station, you’ve likely given a stern glance to someone sitting too close to you at the gate.

The pandemic put a heavy emphasis on personal space — so much so that people were willing to pay to avoid being around others.

As the world begins to reopen, space could be the hottest commodity in travel. Are we ready to give it up, even if we’re fully vaccinated?

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‘Fully vaccinated’ sections at large events

(Photo by adamkatz / Getty Images)

Cracker Jacks, foam fingers and the sounds of screaming (or booing) fans all around.

If you’ve been longing for the thrill and energy of a live sporting event at a stadium, and you’re fully vaccinated, the time has finally come. But are you ready to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” so close to your fellow fans again?

As large events restart around the country, sporting events are singling out vaccinated guests. Roughly 7,500 of the 25,000 attendees at this year’s Super Bowl were fully vaccinated health care workers. For that event, the NFL put cutout photos of fans in the stands to achieve social distancing.

More recently, the Los Angeles Dodgers rolled out a “fully vaccinated fan section” for attendees at their game against the Padres. Fans were required to show proof of having received a COVID-19 vaccination and had to be two weeks post their final vaccine dose. For fully vaccinated fans, social distancing wasn’t required (although masks were).

This is in line with new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that said last week that fully vaccinated Americans can partake in some outdoor activities without wearing a mask, but said people should still wear a mask when in large settings.

Fans seemed to support the idea, and, according to the Los Angeles Times, the pilot may be used at future Dodgers games as well.

“We’re just excited to get back in the stadium,” Dodgers fan Jonathan Riemer told CNN. “This is such an integral part of all of our lives, such an important piece of what makes us whole, and the fact that we’ve been separated from this experience for so long, it means so much for us just to get back in there and be able to celebrate this team, this community, this culture.”

But as people come back together at sporting events, during travel and more, that will likely mean giving up space that’s been a guarantee for many during the pandemic. Experts say being around others won’t be an easy transition for many people.

“The pandemic and all that followed — including social distancing — was and continues to be traumatic and triggering,” said Faye McCray, the editor in chief of Psych Central (which is also owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) through email. “Research on the mental health effects of the pandemic has suggested that folks are reporting higher rates of stress, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychological stress.”

The end of pandemic-era travel policies

Delta 757
(Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Middle seats, crowded lounges and congested boarding gates.

These minor, but annoying, pre-pandemic inconveniences posed major safety concerns for travelers during the pandemic. Suddenly, the person sitting a little too close at the airport restaurant spawned anxiety, not just irritation.

The pandemic changed many travelers’ priorities. Just over a year ago, a traveler might have considered flying on a specific airline because of perks like upgrades or free alcoholic beverages.

But in the months after the onset of the pandemic, many travelers chose to fly based on a carrier’s COVID-19 policies instead — and how far they could stay away from others — with social distancing and having personal space outweighing perks like lounge access.

Travel companies took notice of these preferences. Private jet companies with fewer seats and shorter routes touted that they were social distancing “before it was cool.” Airbnb hosts marketed private islands as social distancing retreats. Amtrak trolled airline middle seat policies on Twitter.

But Amtrak will stop blocking seats on its trains on May 23 and “will no longer be limiting capacity.”

And even Delta Air Lines, which won over passengers with blocked middle seats long after other airlines were booking full flights, stopped the popular pandemic program at the end of April.

So, for people who have been making decisions about travel based on which providers were guaranteeing the most personal space, it’s already a commodity that’s increasingly difficult to find.

After a year spent alone, are we ready to go back?

Social distancing is credited with helping people avoid coming in contact with the coronavirus. But research shows that people reported higher rates of stress, depression, anxiety and other forms of psychological distress during the pandemic.

“We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. It will be important to acknowledge that so we can heal,” McCray said.

In many ways, the pandemic illustrated that people are just simply too close.

This may be at times unavoidable, especially in a city like New York. And after a year spent largely alone, the sheer thought of being in a space without capacity restrictions will likely be enough to induce anxiety for many people. This fear is totally normal, said McCray.

“Take inventory of your own personal comfort and be clear in communicating what social activities you are ready to engage in and what activities you are not ready to participate in,” she said. “For better or worse, many of us have been in our little bubbles for over a year. Easing out is completely understandable.”

McCray suggests consulting your healthcare provider, or the CDC or World Health Organization for reopening guidance, but to also give yourself time to acclimate to a new normal.

“It took time to adjust to social distancing. It will take time to adjust to coming back together.”

Featured photo by People Image Studio/Shutterstock

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