15 People Share What It’s Like To Be COVID Cautious—When It Seems Like Everyone Else Has Moved On

Photo: Stocksy/ Mosuno
In 2022, two years into people being cautious about the COVID-19 pandemic, attitudes, behaviors, and public announcements about how to move forward with a "new normal" began to take shape. As mask mandates were dropped, rapid testing became less common, and pandemic fatigue gave way to many people shedding precautions in favor of embracing their pre-pandemic life—while others continued to mask up, test, and avoid large crowds and gatherings. That divide has led to some people feeling confused, isolated, and alienated from the rest of society.

As Ardie Verkant and Beatrice Alder-Bolton so poignantly wrote in a recent piece entitled The Year The Pandemic 'Ended, "We are living simultaneously in the COVID pandemic as an ongoing event, and as its aftermath."

And while fewer people may be terrified of dying from COVID, there is still a very real risk of long COVID,  which becomes more likely with reinfection. Needless to say, none of this is easy. No matter how you've decided to approach living with COVID, there are risks. And for those people who remain cautious of the virus—because they have to for their own health or are protecting the health of others—the consistent messaging and attitude that the pandemic is over can be tough to handle.

So, Well+Good talked with 15 people being cautious about COVID-19 to get their thoughts on how they're feeling and dealing with this new season of the pandemic.

I’m confused by my medical student peers who took an oath to 'do no harm'

"As a medical student, it feels incredibly surreal to see my peers learn about the dangers of COVID in class and then blithely discard their masks, go to crowded parties, and stop testing. We are studying and sacrificing years of our lives to become physicians, to take care of patients who are sick, and to help as many as we can avoid becoming sick. And yet, people come to school coughing, maskless, saying, 'it's probably just a cold.' And I find it really hard to understand how we could all know the oath 'do no harm' and not make the minimal effort of masking to keep each other and our future patients safe."—Bridget, a medical student

I feel like I am living another reality

"It can sometimes feel like I'm living in another reality. Everyone else keeps moving just like they did three years ago, but that's not the case for me and my friends. It's hard to see folks go "back to normal" when my "normal" is so much different. It's disorienting and makes me so mad."—Erin, a chef

People have become much less understanding as they’ve moved on

"[Me and my husband] are both very aware of all the serious potential long-term side-effects of COVID, like blood clots, etc., and don't want to get the virus again (we both got it in December 2021).

All of this makes our risk calculus much different than most other people we know. We've eaten indoors maybe three times total since February 2020; we wear masks inside everywhere we go, and we say no to pretty much all indoor gatherings. Now that it's winter, we're spending most of our time at home. In many ways, our day-to-day lives feel not that much different from where we were at this time last year or the year before. Meanwhile, everyone else seems to have gone back to "normal.

People were okay with our caution last year and were more willing to accommodate our requests to eat outside or test before a gathering, but this year people have become much less understanding as everyone else has moved on. I get weird looks all the time in my hometown for wearing a mask inside the grocery store. And I constantly have to remind even close family of our limitations, which can be frustrating. It makes me feel like I'm in a bizarro world or something. It's still so real for us, but everyone else is clearly done."—Jessie, a writer and editor

Wearing a mask is worth it to not get sick

"I have not been sick for three years! Would always get cold/bronchitis in winter and summer cold. Wearing a mask is so worth not getting sick. I have lost touch with friends who made not 'believing' in COVID part of their politics and values. I don't necessarily feel alienated because I am just not in touch with people who aren't taking things seriously like me."—Anne, an engineer

I feel alienated and don’t understand others

"When I am the only one in my town wearing a mask, I feel alienated. I don't understand why people think that they are not at risk of serious illness or complications, but also that their families aren't."—Kevin, a retired teacher

My oncology appointment is the only place where other people are consistently masked

"I just went to my oncology appointment today. Large clinic full of believers in science waiting for their checkups or chemo. No sign to remind us to wear a mask; I saw not one bare face among patients, visitors or staff. This is the only place I've been where this happens. We just want to live a little longer. Why don't you?"—Margaret, a retired pharmacist

I’m not imagining the risks, they just don’t see them

"I definitely really struggle with accepting the risk of long COVID, not only as a risk to myself but a risk to the people I care about. I'm chronically ill and I just don't think able-bodied people understand how much it sucks to be forever sick. I know people think I'm an alarmist but the alarms are real to me.

So many people now have had COVID and fully recovered. They look at their own stories and think I'm nuts; I'm young, and I'd recover too. But I was hospitalized for a cold this summer. I'm not imagining the risks; they just don't see them."—Emrhys, a writer

My livelihood depends on my being present, so I have to weigh every decision with that in mind

"When my livelihood depends on everyone being present, it makes it really complicated and convoluted to avoid COVID, but also try to live a normal life. For example, making choices to go to things unmasked is being weighed through the lens of my health and also being able to do my job and potentially risking the success of the entire operation because I could spread it. It's really isolating to see other people generally pretend that it's over or that it doesn't matter when it definitely does. It also feels hard to assert COVID boundaries in social situations; at times, it almost feels rude to keep your mask on."—Mabel, a director

If everyone masked, my quality of life would improve so much

"It's so mind-boggling that people don't wear masks anywhere they go. And like, the disease does seem somewhat random at this point as to who it hurts. It's just that…if universal masking came back, my quality of life would be really decent. Yes, I miss indoor gatherings in large settings but I can piece together lots of small meaningful gatherings and that's fine. But it just feels like people have been bullied out of feeling any fear at all."—Em, a poet

I don’t blame other people, I just can’t enjoy myself at high-risk events

"I was a CNA, certified nursing assistant, in a nursing home when the pandemic started, and I still haven't really processed what I saw there. I am young and am surrounded by young people who feel invincible and just don't really care about COVID or even think that the break from work might be nice. I just feel like reality is split in two, before and after, cautious or not cautious. Am I going to look back on these years and wish I was more carefree and that I didn't miss out? I don't know. I don't blame other people; I just can't enjoy myself at high-risk events."—Camilla, a registered nurse

My biology department always wants stronger prevention measures than the university

"Being in charge of the COVID policy for a bunch of unruly college students felt like I was the wicked stepmother of the fraternity, instead of their peer trying to keep people safe. I had to design the whole COVID safety policy with no repercussions for breaking the rules; we had to set a good example for others about how to operate. Kids in 2020 were trying to plan parties, and I would have to just shut them down, but we managed not to get COVID in the pre-vax era. Now though, my biology department always wants stronger prevention measures than the university administration— who operates as though things are over. I feel strange because I hear people say, 'I'm so glad I dodged a bullet and avoided the vaccine.' But I know that you really do need the vaccine even if you end up being fine after one infection."—Karl, a PhD student and anatomy instructor

It’s surreal, I feel outside of myself and reality

"I have an eight-month-old at home, and I can't risk getting her sick, but walking onto a plane in a mask to see maybe one other person wearing a mask is just… it's surreal. I feel outside of myself and reality. I don't understand how all of these people aren't afraid of giving the loved ones they're going to see a virus that could kill or disable them."—Steph, an administrative director

I just can’t afford to risk it

"I sometimes feel confused because I know gathering and seeing friends is important to some people, even important enough to risk COVID. But after going to a lung specialist and waiting to see a heart specialist, I just can't afford to go to a party in a bar. It divorces that event from being light-hearted and fun, and it's like, no, I am not risking reducing my quality of life for this. The stakes are too high for me, but sometimes I feel so confused—are the stakes high for others? Do they know what it's like to wait for a specialist for months? Do they know what it's like to have a mysterious disability? Will they be fine? I don't have these answers."—Ona, a health care specialist

My husband has cancer, so I just have to wear a mask

"My husband is in the process of receiving cancer treatment, so I don't have time to dilly dally about whether I should wear a mask or not or whether should I go to an indoor party or not—I can't. And I feel no remorse in asking people to take those precautions if they are going to visit. I do also feel so stressed."—Jane, a retired art teacher

I feel resentful for missing out

"I am 22; this illness has colored my entire adult life thus far. I think people look at Gen Z and wonder why we are so weird. I don't really see any mystery, though: What we thought were the adults responsible for us just… gave up. Gave up on COVID, doing nothing about the climate. I don't know… I am COVID cautious, but I feel resentful about missing out when I don't even know if I have a future to grow old and sick anyways."—Allie, a barista

Whether you're the only one in your friend group that turns down invitations to crowded parties or you feel like an outsider for wearing a mask in the grocery store, being cautious about COVID-19 (for whatever reason) can be downright challenging right now. Just know that you're not alone—there is a whole community of like-minded people out there.

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