But across the country, states are rushing to lift mask mandates, tolerance for physical distancing is flagging, and vaccinated people are amending the new guidelines as they see fit. Some, like our would-be dinner-party hosts, are planning mixed-vaccination events, and pushing the boundaries of what makes a gathering “small.” Others are holding birthday bashes, or starting to creep back to in-person work. People are also shaving time off the two-week period that the CDC advises waiting after the final shot, so that immunity can mature. “What difference is a few days going to make?” a friend asked me the other day.
Amid all the fudging, that sentiment is starting to become a constant refrain: Really, what’s the harm?
The harm is, frankly, mathematical. Over time, our vaccine cheat days start to add up. It might truly be innocuous for a few people to cut a couple of corners on occasion. But eventually, a series of flubs will allow exposures, which will in turn beget disease. Our shortcuts also signal to others that it’s okay to chill out when it is very much not.
Now is not the time to relax—quite the opposite. “We’re so close to the end that we should be extra careful right now,” Julie Downs, a psychologist and behavioral scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. The problem is, our lapses don’t just slow us down. They set us back, in the same way that repeatedly opening an oven door will prolong the time it takes to bake a cake (and, at worst, make your delicious dessert collapse). Having made so much progress, we risk a lot with our impatience. And right now, we’re in serious danger of botching our grand pandemic finale.
The CDC can’t be expected to lay out every possible social scenario that a vaccinated person might encounter. But public-health officials do have the tough job of tweaking guidance based on new data on vaccine effectiveness. Wobbly rules are harder to communicate and follow; even CDC Director Rochelle Walensky seemed to waffle last week while discussing how effectively inoculations thwart infection and the risks of post-vaccination travel.
Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to spin ambiguity into the most favorable outcome available, says Uma Karmarkar, a behavioral-economics expert who studies decision making at UC San Diego. Any squishiness in wording can provide a loophole for people to pick at, or to massage into a more convenient shape. Saskia Popescu, an infection-prevention expert based in Arizona, told me she’s already noticed people deriving false equivalences from the agency’s guidelines: “People figure, If I can get together with another household that’s unvaccinated, why can’t we do large meetings?”
Many of these decisions, while well intentioned, will create a patchwork of post-vaccination behaviors, a lot of which will be risk miscalculations. “If I’m the one left to generalize, I’m going to use intuition,” Downs said. “So if I can do this, surely I can do this—maybe I don’t see it as a step toward the risky, but as a step toward the side.” Some people who believe that they’ve behaved responsibly this past year might feel more impervious to the virus, and cut themselves more slack, Karmarkar told me. A sense of exceptionalism, she said, makes it easy to say, “Well, an intimate gathering might be eight to 10 for most people, but we’re extra careful, so 12 or 14 is probably fine.” Even people who say they plan to get vaccinated but haven’t yet appear to be loosening up ahead of schedule, according to the Gallup survey—perhaps because, for some people, the wait is becoming too much to take.