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Despite Rising COVID Cases, Will This Be the Real ‘Hot Vax Summer’?​

People may be ready to gather and socialize in a bigger way, even as the pandemic lingers

family eating dinner outside during the summer
The Good Brigade/Getty Images

​For the first time in more than two years, Joelle Broughton has a packed calendar. ​ ​

Broughton, 56, purchased concert tickets, made plans to attend wedding and graduation celebrations, booked flights to Toronto, and invited out-of-town guests to visit her in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina.​

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“As I’ve gotten vaccinated and boosted, the world is starting to feel safer again and I’ve started to feel more confident about making plans and getting back out doing things,” Broughton says.​

​Last summer, there was talk of a “hot vax summer,” with a Roaring 20s-like atmosphere as newly vaccinated Americans emerged from a long period of social isolation ready to party and, in some cases, do more dating and pairing up. Unfortunately, the arrival of the omicron variant and a surge in COVID cases forced another round of lockdowns and canceled plans. ​

But this year, even with the highly contagious strain circulating, some people have had enough and are ready for a new normal and an enhanced summer of socializing. With vaccination rates at 95 percent for those over age 65 and many pandemic restrictions loosened or lifted, masks are down, travel bookings are up — with 85 percent of Americans planning trips this summer — and a full roster of concerts, festivals and other live events is back on the schedule.​

“There is a feeling of freedom and possibility in the air,” says Laura Whitney Sniderman, the founder of Kinnd, a friendship app aimed at reducing loneliness. “The desire to let loose is arising from the deficit of connection caused by the pandemic. We were starved for connection and now we’re filling ourselves back up.”​

Summer plans ready for takeoff 

People are learning to balance their concerns about COVID prevention with a yearning to get on with their lives. ​Last summer Bruce Brothers enjoyed a few short domestic trips, but with international travel restricted by many countries shutting their borders, he had no choice but to stay close to his home in Marco Island, Florida.​

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​“Even domestic travel was restricted,” the 79-year-old recalls. “The idea of sitting on an airplane for five hours — or longer — or going to New York City and wearing a mask everywhere didn’t appeal to me.”​

​As borders reopened and many pandemic restrictions were lifted, Brothers began booking international trips. Over the next six months, he has plans to travel to Mexico, Idaho, Indonesia and Montreal before embarking on a rescheduled five-month, around-the-world cruise (the original trip was canceled due to COVID).​

“I’m trying to make up for lost time,” he says.​ ​

It’s not just international travel and milestone celebrations that are top of mind; people are starting to feel more comfortable gathering with friends and reengaging in activities like dining out, book clubs and recreational sports leagues that were canceled during the pandemic. ​ ​

“People just feel isolation and COVID fatigue,” Sniderman says. The virus hasn’t been banished, she acknowledges, but “with mandates lessening and governments easing up restrictions, I think people will take this as a sign that it’s OK to gather.” ​

COVID-19 still exacts a toll 

​Broughton, who contracted the virus in December 2020 and developed symptoms of long COVID, including blood clots, trouble breathing and extreme fatigue, remains cautious. The concert tickets she purchased are for an outdoor show, and most gatherings she has planned with friends will take place outdoors, too. ​

​“The fear isn’t gone; it’s always going to be in the back of my mind,” she says. “But I’m starting to feel a little more comfortable [doing more things].”​

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​More than half of Americans believe the worst part of the pandemic is behind us, with a recent poll showing 49 percent have eaten at a restaurant and 47 percent have visited friends, even though 23 percent feel the pandemic will never end, according to research from YouGov. ​

​But a separate poll found that 30 percent of Americans believe life will never return to normal and more than 20 percent predict it will be 2023 or later before they feel comfortable traveling or attending concerts or sporting events.​

​“There is a huge amount of anxiety about what summer will bring [and] everyone is wary of trying to predict the future in a highly fluid situation,” says psychologist Bonnie Olsen, professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Southern California. “People are all over the spectrum — from ‘I’m going to do what I want’ to ‘It’s still not safe and I’m going to continue with all of the precautions.’”​

​Broughton says that her comfort levels shift depending on the circumstances: She’ll welcome vaccinated and boosted visitors to her home this summer and attend outdoor gatherings, but she turned down invitations to indoor events and canceled plans to spend a weekend at a beach house after learning that some of the guests had not taken similar precautions. ​

​“It’s hard to keep good friends at arm’s length because we’re not on the same page" about COVID precautions, she says.​

​Olsen acknowledges that constantly monitoring COVID-19 case numbers, personal health, vaccination status and risk tolerance when considering invitations or activities can be exhausting — and could take a toll on friendships. In addition to being vigilant about COVID-19 risks, she encourages vigilance when it comes to staying connected with loved ones.​

​“Early in the pandemic, we were all in the same boat [and] now we’re not,” she says. “We need to be communicating our needs without apology and asking, ‘How can we still connect?’”​

​Broughton is taking a gradual approach to resuming pre-pandemic activities: She started with outdoor dining and trips to the beach before making plans to board a plane and attend a wedding. She might not be ready for a hot vax summer, but she is excited just to be making plans.​

“I feel like the worst of it is behind us,” she says. “I’m hopeful.”

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