It’s too soon to declare victory over the coronavirus. But there’s a good chance that V-C Day is coming very quickly. Christmas? Nonsense. Fourth of July? Almost certainly. Memorial Day? Maybe.
Rates of infection have retreated before, but this time will be different, because a colossal number of Americans (perhaps 120 million) have already been infected, because a very large number of Americans (65 million) have received a vaccine, and, crucially, because a major chunk of the people we would most like to get vaccinated (due to age or because they interact with lots of others) already have had their shot.
Everywhere the virus turns, it is looking at roadblocks. It has fewer and fewer avenues to destroy. The beast is being cornered. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be approved within days, with 20 million doses soon to be ready. With all of these weapons, and rapidly burgeoning infrastructure to deliver them to the target, getting 2 million people a day vaccinated is not a far-fetched goal. Even those who only get one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine will enjoy a terrific level of protection. As the distribution machinery starts to work more efficiently, we could get something like 180 million shots into arms this spring, on top of the 65 million jabs that have already been jabbed. It is not necessary for every last American to get a shot before the virus goes into its inevitable death spiral. These trends appear likely to cut it to shreds before the first really hot day arrives in the Northeast. Meanwhile, cases have fallen 75 percent from a peak seven-day average of a quarter of a million in January to 55,000 on February 22.
Although I respect President Biden’s under-promise/over-deliver tendencies, we as a country should not be unprepared for the victory that is coming. We have learned a lot about how the virus works, and how it doesn’t: Outdoor transmission, for the most part, hardly ever happens. Kids are at very low risk, especially younger children. Baseball games, barbecues, and summer camps should be fine. Some pre-COVID activities now carry a different risk profile — notably anything that packs crowds together indoors, so Broadway theater, rock concerts, and the like will be just about the last category of activity to return to normal.
Movie theaters, however, are a different story: Most seats are empty in most theaters a majority of the time. People can be socially distanced while they enjoy Black Widow as long as they’re willing to be patient; that means not everybody can see it on opening weekend. With two out of three seats kept empty, though, theaters can charge a lot more for those opening-weekend seats, adjust prices accordingly as a theatrical run continues, and potentially return to profitability. Even in pandemic-shattered New York City, tyrannically run for a year by Governor Andrew Cuomo, theaters are cleared to reopen on March 5, at 25 percent capacity. There is a chicken-and-egg problem here: The major movie studios aren’t going to release films to theaters if the largest markets remain closed. So the studios will be eager to hear equally encouraging words from the other largest movie market, in Los Angeles, in order to move forward. Now that L.A. elementary schools are open, normalizing most of the rest of the L.A. economy should be feasible in early spring.
Anthony Fauci cautioned us the other day that America will not be going back to normal any time soon, but this is nonsense; even eminent figures who are not Donald Trump sometimes say stupid things, and Fauci has already contradicted himself on several occasions. When Fauci said Americans might be able to get back to below-capacity theaters and indoor dining “somewhere between the fall and the end of the year,” he seemed unaware that in the vast majority of the country, these things are already routine; even in New York City, where hardy souls bundled up in ski jackets and gloves dined on sidewalks for the first two-thirds of the winter, restaurants are now serving diners indoors.
This remains a bottom-up, rather than top-down country, and we are all very fortunate that Anthony Fauci does not enjoy the authority to control our lives, interdict our interactions, and smother our economic choices. There are real costs to extreme risk aversion, and everyone but Fauci knows this, even Democratic governors and mayors in the bluest and hardest-hit parts of the country. Americans are already shrugging off Fauci’s lockdown mania because what he’s saying amounts to telling people we should drive 20 mph to reduce the risk of a fatal crash. But we’ll soon be going 70 again whether Fauci likes it or not. One of the most stirring moments in The Right Stuff arrives when Scott Glenn’s Alan Shepard cries out, to the control booth that is futzing with details, “Why don’t you fix your little problems and light this candle.” If current trends continue, America’s candle is going to be blazing even before the Fourth of July.