The Most Likely Timeline for Life to Return to Normal
An uncertain spring, an amazing summer, a cautious fall and winter, and then, finally, relief.
The end of the coronavirus pandemic is on the horizon at last, but the timeline for actually getting there feels like it shifts daily, with updates about viral variants, vaccine logistics, and other important variables seeming to push back the finish line or scoot it forward. When will we be able to finally live our lives again?
Pandemics are hard to predict accurately, but we have enough information to make some confident guesses. A useful way to think about what’s ahead is to go season by season. In short: Life this spring will not be substantially different from the past year; summer could, miraculously, be close to normal; and next fall and winter could bring either continued improvement or a moderate backslide, followed by a near-certain return to something like pre-pandemic life.
Here, in more detail, is what Americans can expect daily life to look like for the next four(-ish) seasons.
For the most part, daily life will continue to be far from normal for the next few months. Normal is of course a slippery word, given that many Americans have had to report to work or have chosen to dine out, travel, and do all sorts of things that others have avoided. But whatever people have not been doing for the past year, they can expect to keep not doing it this spring.
It’s unlikely that enough people will get vaccinated in the spring to restore normalcy. In fact, experts fear that the pandemic could get much worse in the near term, because variants of the virus that are more contagious or vaccine-resistant than the original version have begun circulating in the United States. The damage those variants will do is still unknown; “March to May is the mystery,” as my colleague Robinson Meyer wrote earlier this month.
The good news, though, is that even with these variants, existing vaccines appear to reduce the risk of severe illness, meaning more and more people will be protected as vaccinations continue. And vaccines can change individuals’ risk calculus. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told me that in a month or so, in the absence of a variant-driven surge, he’d probably be comfortable going to a friend’s house for a drink, mask-free and indoors, if he and his friend were both fully vaccinated. “As we get into late spring, a lot of that stuff—the smaller gatherings of vaccinated people—I think starts becoming quite possible,” Jha said.
Whatever happens in the spring, the summer should be a sublime departure from what Americans have lived through so far. As my colleague James Hamblin wrote last week, “In most of the U.S., the summer could feel … ‘normal,’” even “revelatory.”
“Barring some variant that is just really crazy, I expect the summer to be a lot like the summer of 2019,” Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine, told me. Based on the drop-off in cases and hospitalizations over the past few weeks, he thinks life could even be close to normal as soon as sometime in May.
Other experts I consulted were slightly less optimistic, but they generally agreed that at some point between June and September, the combination of widespread vaccinations and warmer weather would likely make many activities much safer, including having friends and family over indoors, taking public transit, being in a workplace, dining inside restaurants, and traveling domestically (whether for work, visiting loved ones, or a vacation).
The safest way to phase these activities back in will be for people to gradually go from smaller, private social settings (such as a friend’s house) to bigger, public ones (such as a restaurant)—which is also what many will probably feel most comfortable with. “People will slowly expand the social world that they engage in, building [their] pod back up,” predicts Emily Oster, an economist at Brown who writes about everyday pandemic decision making in her newsletter ParentData.
Jha, for instance, expects to host 20 or so friends for a Fourth of July barbecue in his backyard, with every adult vaccinated and no one having to wear a mask. He imagines himself being comfortable eating indoors at a restaurant later on in the summer, provided it’s not packed and the ventilation is decent.
The summer will still have its limitations, though. The experts I spoke with didn’t foresee the return of indoor concerts, full attendance at sporting events, or high levels of international travel.
They did, however, expect that Americans will be able to ease up on mask wearing and social distancing in other contexts. “I think when people are vaccinated themselves, they will start letting their guard down, but it will also genuinely be safer from a public-health perspective,” said Jennifer Beam Dowd, a professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford and the chief scientific officer of Dear Pandemic, a COVID-19 public-education campaign. Noymer’s prediction is that masking will be necessary in public settings until every American has at least been offered a vaccine, at which point he figures he would be okay with repealing mask mandates.
Even once these precautions are no longer strictly necessary, many people will probably keep up some of them, opting to wear a mask, say, on public transportation or in a grocery store. Oster thinks that while certain activities should become much safer over the summer, many people might not be comfortable resuming them until the end of the year or even later.
Even if the summer feels like the end of the pandemic, it could turn out to be more of a temporary reprieve.
Most of the U.S. population should be vaccinated by the fall, but some resurgence of the virus seems likely in the colder months. “It won’t be as bad as this winter, but I don’t know if it’s going to be pretty bad or [if] just a few people will get it,” Noymer said.
Thankfully, the latter scenario seems more likely, and could still allow for additional normalcy; indoor concerts might even come back. “The summer might be a little early for really large crowds,” Dowd said. “I see the autumn as the important turning point for those kinds of mass gatherings.”
This scenario might result in isolated viral flare-ups, but vaccines should significantly reduce the likelihood that anyone who gets infected would end up in the hospital, and could also make them less likely to spread the virus.
Another outcome seems less probable but more troubling: Whether because a variant ends up evading existing vaccines or because infections surge among unvaccinated people, cases might climb again. Even after a wonderful summer, a rise in cases could necessitate a reversion to many of the precautions from earlier in the pandemic, even if it doesn’t require full-on lockdowns. “I’m not saying that the return of the masks and working from home and all the crap that we hate is guaranteed,” Noymer said. “But if it does return, it won’t be in the summer. It’ll be in the fall.”
Thankfully, though, if stubborn variants do circulate, new vaccines should be able to tame them relatively quickly. Adjusting an existing vaccine recipe could take only a few months, meaning that the disruption to daily life would not be as drawn out as what Americans have lived through already.
Beyond next winter, experts’ predictions are blessedly simple: Life in the warmer months of 2022 should be normal, or at least whatever qualifies as normal post-pandemic. The virus will still exist, but one possibility is that it will be less likely to make people severely ill and that it will, like the flu, circulate primarily in the colder months; some people would still die from COVID-19, but the virus wouldn’t rage out of control again. Meanwhile, Americans should be able to do most, if not all, of the things that they missed so much in 2020 and 2021, mask- and worry-free.
Of course, this dreamy era is still more than a year away, and some unforeseen obstacle could delay the resumption of normalcy. Jha said he couldn’t picture what that might be, though. After a year spent gaming out how bad the pandemic could get, he can finally see ahead to a time when there are no more catastrophes to imagine.