December 17, 2020

When will it be safe to go back to 'normal'? Here's what top experts say.

Daily Briefing

    Americans are eager to get back to their pre-pandemic lives when it was considered safe to gather indoors with friends, go out to dinner with family, and travel—and for many the new coronavirus vaccine is a sign of hope. But the New York Times reports that questions remain  about how and when Americans can expect a return to normalcy.

    The Times spoke with epidemiologists and health and science writers at the newspaper to better understand what lies ahead in the coming months. Here are the answers to six key questions from the Times' conversations with experts.

    1. Will people have to be vaccinated before they can go back to work?

    To bring employees back into the office, employers may require every employee to be vaccinated against the coronavirus just as many require annual flu s, experts said.

    Abby Goodnough, national health care correspondent at the Times, said employers have the authority to do so—but only once FDA formally approves a vaccine (and so far, FDA has only authorized the emergency use of Pfizer's and BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine).

    Goodnough explained, "employees can seek exemptions based on medical reasons or religious beliefs," she said. In those instances, employers are required to offer their employees a "'reasonable accommodation,'" which could include having them wear a mask in the office or work from home.

    2. When will people gather in crowds without masks?

    The novel coronavirus's transmission will have to be low for people to start gathering in crowds again without masks, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said.

    "If the level of infection in the community seems substantial, you're not going to have the parties with friends in congregant settings," Fauci explained. However, "[i]f the level of infection is so low that risk is minuscule, you're going to see back to the normal congregating together, having parties, doing that"—a threshold he said boils down to getting the vaccine as it becomes available.

    Julie Bettinger, associate professor at University of British Columbia, said she doesn't plan to "change behaviors" and start "attending any crowded events until at least 80% of the population is vaccinated."

    In an interview Tuesday on NPR's "Morning Edition" Fauci also said, "I would say 50% would have to get vaccinated before you start to see an impact." He added, "But I would say 75 to 85% would have to get vaccinated if you want to have that blanket of herd immunity."

    3. Do we have to wait for a majority of Americans to be vaccinated before we can resume travel?

    It's unclear when Americans will start traveling again. Fauci said, "There is no black and white, light switch on, light switch off." However, Fauci believes Americans will gradually begin traveling before 75% of the population is vaccinated against the coronavirus, which is the lower threshold for herd immunity.

    4. How much longer will we have to wear masks?

    According to Fauci, getting back to normal will require Americans to get vaccinated once a coronavirus inoculation becomes more widely available. Fauci said the country may eventually reach "herd immunity," which would mean Americans no longer have "to wear … mask[s] all the time," but they "might want to wear [them] … in a crowded situation."

    "Ultimately, I think you're going to have to transition from wearing [a face mask] all the time, to wearing it under certain circumstances, to perhaps not having to wear it at all," Fauci said.

    5. When will we be able to go to the movies or theater again?

    American could start going to the movies or theater as early as next April, but it will all depend on how many Americans get vaccinated against the coronavirus and how infection rates look, Fauci said. 

    "If you go to April, May, June and you really put on a full-court press and try to vaccinate everybody within a period of a few months, as you go from second to third quarter of the year, then you could likely go to movies, go to theaters, do what you want," Fauci said.

    However, Fauci said this scenario is "unlikely, given what we're hearing about people's desire to get vaccinated, that we're going to have that degree of uptake." According to Fauci, if only 50% of Americans get vaccinated, "it's going to take much, much longer to get back to the kind of normality that we'd like to see."

    6. When will we be able to safely eat at restaurants again?

    As with going to the movies or theater, eating at restaurants will likely not be safe until more than half of Americans get the coronavirus vaccine, Vijaya Seegulam, a research project manager at Boston University, said.

    For her part, Seegulam said, "If more than half the population is vaccinated, I would feel a little less stressed and anxious when heading out to do errands I normally do. I might actually feel comfortable to eat in a restaurant or see friends again one day if this is possible (Parker-Pope et al., New York Times, 12/16; Booker, NPR, 12/15).

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