Prepare Now for a Long Winter


Illustration for article titled Prepare Now for a Long Winter

Photo: Alexander Schitschka (Shutterstock)

Right now we’re navigating staycations and road trips. The parents and students among us are planning for those chaotic first few weeks of school, whether they be in-person or remote. But soon we’ll be in the thick of fall, and after fall comes winter. And COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere.

We are, of course, fighting to flatten the epidemic curve. But consider the best-case scenario: Even as new cases trend downward, it takes vigilance to make sure they don’t spike back up again. And even if we get cases down to near-zero in one city or one state, there is always be a possibility that travel or undetected illness could spark a new cluster.

While many of us are holding out hope that a vaccine might become available this fall or winter, it’s highly unlikely that even a fast-tracked vaccine could possibly reach everyone (and protect everyone) before 2020 is out.

We are in for a long winter. Here’s how it might pan out.

September

Some schools have started already, and some have already had to send students home again. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the schools that are currently swearing up and down that school will start in person suddenly have a change of heart.

Meanwhile, this whole remote learning situation will hopefully be better than the makeshift stuff a lot of families experienced in the spring, but it’s still new territory for many of us. Will things run smoothly? Call me a pessimist, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Whatever plans you’re making, expect them to be upended.

Expect a steady stream of cancellations from here on out: school semesters, sports seasons, conferences and more. The announcements will be even more chaotic than they were in the spring. Back then, everybody knew everything would be canceled. Now, organizers are more willing to hold out hope that things will be okay by the time such-and-such date rolls around. Everybody will be waiting on everybody else to be the first to cancel.

If you hold a position of power somewhere—coach of a team, speaker on a conference panel, squeaky wheel in the PTA, organizer of a big event at work—consider being the first voice to say “Maybe we should cancel.” (You will hold this position of responsibility throughout the winter.)

October

Halloween will likely proceed much like school reopenings. Either we will have trick-or-treating and parties, in which case outbreaks could stem from those; or we won’t, and we’ll have to come up with alternate plans. I’m voting for no parties, just bowls of candy and hand sanitizer on every porch, and neighbors shouting through windows YOU JUST LOOK SO CUTE IN THAT COSTUME!

In many parts of the US, October is when it starts to get cold. Outdoor parties and patio seating at restaurants will be a bit chilly, but we’ll power through.

November

First, the election. The goddam election. Lining up to vote in person seems like a bad idea. Mail-in ballots have suddenly become a political football, even though they expand access to voting and do not pose a serious risk of fraud. Some states let you drop your ballot off in an approved drop box, but is that accessible enough? Will we hear about long lines and overfull drop boxes on election night?

Maybe there will be clusters of COVID stemming from the election. Maybe not. Oh, and flu season may start ramping up around now.

And what will we do about Thanksgiving? It’s normally one of the biggest travel days of the year, and if you haven’t seen your grandparents since last November, chances are they’re already trying to talk you into coming to visit. If case counts are still high, everyone might be better off staying home. But how many people will be able to resist?

December

There will still be holiday parties, I’d bet. In a normal year, one already has to decide which invitations to decline, if only for the sake of their sanity. This year, we’ll have to decide how many our contact budget will allow. Maybe case counts will be low and we can let loose a little bit. (Maybe we’d be better off canceling everything.)

If parties happen, and our overall testing and prevention strategies are still a mess, there will be a long series of COVID clusters starting at various parties. Maybe too many to keep track of.

By now it’s definitely too cold to hold every gathering outdoors. Those of us in the northern climes will risk the coronavirus every time we meet in person. We’ll also be jealous of California’s weather. (And we might make plans to come visit you, California, exchanging germs while we’re at it.)

January

This is another transition point that will be hard for a lot of us. Back in March, I began to suspect that 2020 was canceled. Every event, every semester, every season, everything. By 2021, though, we’d be through the worst of it and things would be different.

But if we have a rough December, there’s no reason to believe January will be any better. We could see spikes from holiday parties and winter travel. Chances are, the vaccine—if it materializes—will still be a long way from universally available. And we’ll be facing a new year with no clear sense of how long our troubles might last.

If this is too much of a downer

So far this year, my pessimism has proven to be right every time. I told you in March that this isn’t going to end soon, and in June that it’s gonna get worse. Our parenting editor, Meghan Walbert, told you earlier this month that schools will close again right after they open, a slow-motion crash that’s unfolding around us right now.

I would really, really like to be wrong. Please prove me wrong. Please stay home, please cancel everything that’s in your power to cancel, please lobby the heck out of every local government and state government and federal government to put a realistic plan in place to keep people safe. Let’s get fast, reliable testing to all who need it. Let’s pay people to stay home and extend hazard pay to those who can’t. Let’s find alternative solutions for everything that normally “has to” happen in person. Let’s study the heck out of this virus and how it spreads. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll luck out with a vaccine too.

Back in March, it almost seemed realistic to think that we could hunker down for a short time and enjoy the reward of going right back to normal life. In April, it seemed like things were taking just a teensy bit longer than planned. It’s August now, and we can see the future unfolding in front of us, if only we dare to look. It’s going to be a long winter.