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​5 Ways Omicron Is Changing the Way We Socialize

The highly contagious variant has altered decisions about how we interact

people enjoying a dinner party outside

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Blame it on omicron. That’s what Lori Gladstone has been doing this year in deciding how to socialize while the variant’s virulent transmissibility looms.

Gladstone, of Plainview, New York, went to a late-January bridal shower for her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, but her sister didn’t attend because of omicron. Yet Gladstone, 62, and her husband had declined an invitation to a 60th-birthday party in Atlanta on March 12. Traveling that close to the March 26 wedding was a risk they didn’t want to take.

Such decisions seemed more straightforward last year, when COVID-19 cases ebbed and Gladstone traveled on planes, ate inside restaurants and felt comfortable in crowds when wearing a mask. But omicron’s arrival made her realize that no matter what she does, there’s always a risk.

“I do feel like at some point we’re all going to get omicron,” says Gladstone, a paralegal. She says she knows many people who, despite precautions, have been infected. “It’s not like they’ve been doing anything reckless.”

Gladstone isn’t alone in altering the way she socializes and makes decisions about socializing amid the omicron surge. For some, particularly the vaccinated and boosted, a bit of fatalism has entered the social space, and they may be willing to be out and about in ways they weren’t earlier in the pandemic. For others, after a respite over the summer, omicron has sent them back into “hunker down” mode.

In our constantly changing pandemic dynamic, omicron is shifting the way we socialize in five big ways.

1. Testing before social gatherings is becoming the norm

Milestone birthdays and anniversaries celebrated with family and friends were often virtual in 2020, with in-person gatherings gaining ground last year as vaccines and boosters allayed fears. This year, with omicron dominant, social psychologist Beverley Fehr, of the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, says that “at some social gatherings, the host will require that people take rapid tests.”

“They’re gathering in person but trying to do it in a safer manner,” Fehr explains.

At-home tests are becoming easier to get, especially since the government is mailing free tests to those who sign up for them.

2. Social distancing and masking are back for some people

A Gallup survey conducted in January reflects behavioral changes because of omicron.

Of 1,569 adults surveyed about behavior during the previous week, more than one-third (34 percent) avoided small gatherings, up from previous surveys; 56 percent avoided large crowds; and 41 percent avoid public places, including stores and restaurants.  

The survey notes that the impact of omicron means “many have reverted to social distancing behaviors last employed when the pandemic was at its worst.”

With the variant spreading widely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on January 14 updated its guidance, saying N95 and KN95 masks offer the “highest protection” against COVID-19.

Another survey of 1,161 adults released in late January by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reflects similar behavioral changes due to omicron. More respondents reported avoiding other people as much as possible, staying away from large groups and wearing masks around others than they did in December.

3. Hugs might be on hold

Some felt safe about hugging last year, but omicron dashed that sign of warmth and support. Now, experts say, you should ask before embracing anyone and wait for an answer.  

“There are distinctly different types of reactions in terms of people’s assessment of risk and consequent behavior according to how much risk they feel,” says psychologist David Cates, director of behavioral health for Omaha-based Nebraska Medicine.

The less concerned are “pretty much behaving and feeling it’s life as usual,” he says. “But if your risk tolerance is low and you tend to have concerns about your health or are a more risk-averse individual, you may even be more fearful because [omicron] is so transmissible.”  


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4. Flexibility in planning is essential

Pat Calabrese, 64, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, works in the health care field and has been vigilant about additional COVID-19 exposure. She relaxed for a time last summer when she and her husband hosted 15 to 20 people at their home. Now they’re back to staying away from others.

“We talk about it,” she says, describing conversations with friends about gathering. “There’s always a sentence or two of ‘It would be nice to go out.’ Then, ‘No, we can’t.’ It’s always that pause.”

Omicron’s continued presence is causing people to pivot, reassess and weigh the risks. That ramped up for many around the holidays.

“We thought we’d gather for Christmas,” says David Denino, 68, of Wallingford, Connecticut. Denino says he and his wife would normally celebrate with her family, including sisters and nieces who live nearby. Instead, they limited their exposure to visits with his mother-in-law.

Others felt more confident about socializing and traveling during the holidays.

suzi menfi and her family on a group trip to jamaica

Courtesy Suzi Menfi

Despite omicron concerns, Suzi Menfi and her family took a group trip to Jamaica.

Suzi Menfi, 43, of Austin, Texas, traveled over the holiday break to Jamaica with her family — 15 in all — for her father’s 75th birthday, a celebration that had been postponed a year. All kids were vaccinated and all adults boosted. But omicron made her family hesitate and double down on precautions.

“It was a big deal and a lot of decision-making if we should still go a week before,” Menfi says.

Adding to the uncertainty was a positive PCR test for her 14-year-old daughter just days before departure. Menfi was going to stay behind with her daughter and have her parents travel with her sons. But a few days later, test results were negative and they all went. The first five days were fine — until the Friday before their Sunday flight, when Menfi woke up with a slight sore throat and a little congestion.

When the family tested before flying home, Menfi was positive for COVID-19, forcing her to stay in Jamaica an extra five days (travel insurance covered costs) and quarantine.

5. Realizing there’s not one way to navigate life in a pandemic

“Omicron has highlighted the uncertainty of this virus,” says Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, public health and medicine at the University of California, Irvine, who studies coping responses to national stressors, like 9/11 and the pandemic.

Such events “have an ambiguous endpoint,” Cohen Silver wrote as lead author of a paper on collective trauma published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in January 2021. “We do not know how bad things will get, nor when recovery can truly begin.”

a portrait of juan palomo

Courtesy Juan Palomo

When omicron hit, Juan Palomo stopped going to the gym.

Omicron’s arrival makes us realize the pandemic is evolving and choices on socializing are based on an individual’s assessment of risk.

Fehr says some may view staying the course as a type of investment, reasoning that since they’ve hung in there for so long, they don’t want to give up now. If they’ve deprived themselves of social contact for the past two years and managed to stay safe, she adds, some wonder why they should give up in the home stretch.

Before the pandemic, Juan Palomo, 75, of Houston, Texas, went to the gym five times a week.

“I did go back for a couple of months, until omicron came along,” Palomo says. “It was not only good for my physical health and mental health, it was an opportunity to be around people.”

Palomo participates in a Spanish-language monthly book club and, as a published poet, is involved in local and national workshops. Activities resumed in person for a while (he double-masks) — until omicron. Now he’s encouraged that a turnaround is near, and he’ll return to the gym with a mask and get back to visiting friends at their homes.

“I’ve been a little nervous about it, but I’ve done it,” Palomo says.“I don’t see myself being locked up in this apartment for the rest of my life.”

Sharon Jayson is a contributing writer who covers health, family, aging and retirement. As a staff reporter for USA Today, she covered behavior and relationships. She has also written for Kaiser Health News, The Washington Post, Time Magazine and U.S. News & World Report.

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