For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been abuzz about a planned work trip — my first since the start of the pandemic. Actually, my first time in a plane during the COVID era, as well. I was heading to Cincinnati to cover a retirement conference. But part of the attraction was just connecting with others again in a group setting, and engaging in the travel-related rituals and routines that were once a part of our workaday lives.
Suddenly, the idea of attending a breakout session on investing seemed as quixotic as seeing “Hamilton” on Broadway or going to the Super Bowl. I was even starting to salivate over the prospect of having an airplane meal. Or at least one of those bags of pretzels that flight attendants like to dole out. But so much for the pretzels. As usual, COVID got in the way. In this case, I’m not the one who got the virus. Rather, a friend I joined at a bar for beers and pinball learned a couple of days after we met that he had caught the bug. Naturally, he informed me. Never mind that we were both fully vaccinated. He had a breakthrough case, and I … well, I had “exposure.” It’s all still a bit complicated sorting these things out — and the rules are different for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Between my reading of CDC guidance and my parsing of what my doctor’s office advised, I learned that, as long as I didn’t knowingly have the virus (or have symptoms), I could get on a plane and be around others, provided I stayed masked. But I knew I still could be putting those others at risk. Plus, I’d have to take a COVID test five to seven days after my exposure — right when I was supposed to be in Cincinnati. And if I tested positive? I’d have to quarantine for 14 days in Cincinnati. That’s a lot of Cincy-style chili. Needless to say, I canceled the trip. The point of my relating this whole misadventure — or nonadventure, to be more accurate — is that we’re still very much living in the age of COVID. Even as we reopen our borders in the U.S. to international travelers. Even as we reopen our offices to workers who have been toiling away at home these past 18-plus months. Even as we make plans for holiday gatherings that we couldn’t have last year. You don’t need to hear me whine about a missed business trip to know that. You just have to look at the cold, hard numbers: 1,216 people died from COVID in this country on Nov. 10 alone, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 758,588, according to the New York Times tracker. That’s a figure higher than the population of three individual states (Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska). And the death toll isn’t something abstract: By now, most of us know someone who lost their life to the virus. In my case, I can think of at least three people gone — all parents of close friends. That’s the real tragedy of this disease. Coronavirus Update: Federal judge deals blow to Texas ban on face masks in schools, and Europe struggles to contain rising COVID-19 cases and deaths At the same time, the toll I’m talking about is that of COVID fatigue and the grim reality that as much as we want to move past the virus, we can’t right now — and we still really don’t know when, if ever, we may reach that point. If anything, our lives could remain a series of calculated choices and the constant need to wear masks for months, if not years, to come. To say nothing of having to stay on top of CDC advisories, sort out virus-related rules and regulations and generally live in a world that refuses to return to normal. My wife reminded me that I set the chain of events in motion that led to my canceled business trip when I met my friend and others at that bar. Does that mean I won’t be going to bars in the future? Probably not. But the mere fact I’m asking the question says a lot about where we are right now. It says a lot about our economic recovery from COVID, too. Consider that in New York City, only 8% of the worker population has returned to a five-days-a-week schedule in the office. And for all the reopening of venues and restarting of events, it’s still worth noting what’s being canceled, from a Veteran’s Day parade in Austin to a Chicago Cubs fan convention. All because of ongoing fear of the virus. Of course, I still don’t know if I have COVID, either. The test will come in a few days. I’ve had these scares before and know the drill: a quick swab of the nostrils and an anxious 10-or-so-minute wait. Maybe this time I’ll be one of the unlucky ones. Maybe not. But even then, there’s always the next scare and another test. Perhaps there will be a way out of this if enough Americans get vaccinated, but it seems like we’re losing that fight (yes, I’m looking at you, Aaron Rodgers). And that’s not to say there won’t be other COVID-related surprises that may delay our full return to normal. For example, there’s now word that deer — deer! — are getting COVID, which leaves open the possibility of transmission from Bambi to humans. To quote Suresh Kuchipudi, a veterinary virologist at Penn State who was recently interviewed by NPR: “If the virus has opportunities to find an alternate host besides humans … that will create a safe haven where the virus can continue to circulate even if the entire human population becomes immune.” So the COVID saga continues. And so does the COVID fatigue that may sap all our will and energy in the not-too-distant future, even if we consider ourselves fortunate not to have died from the virus. All I know is I really wanted to get to Cincinnati and have a bowl of that famous chili. Maybe next year.