Blame Omicron. That’s what Lori Gladstone did this year when she decided how to socialize amid the threat of the variant’s virulent transmissibility.
Gladstone, of Plainview, New York, went to a bridal shower for her soon-to-be daughter-in-law in late January, but her sister didn’t attend because of Omicron. But Gladstone, 62, and her husband had declined an invitation to a 60th birthday party in Atlanta on March 12. Traveling so close to the March 26 wedding was a risk they didn’t want to take.
Such decisions seemed easier over the past year as COVID-19 cases eased and Gladstone was traveling on planes, eating at restaurants and staying comfortable in crowds wearing a mask. But the arrival of omicron made her realize that no matter what she does, there is always a risk.
“I have a feeling we’re all going to get Omicron eventually,” says Gladstone, a paralegal. She says she knows many people who have become infected despite precautionary measures. “It’s not like they did anything reckless.”
Gladstone isn’t the only one changing the way she socializes and makes decisions about socializing amid the omicron rise. For some, particularly the vaccinated and boosted, a little fatalism has entered the social space, and they may be ready to venture out in ways they weren’t earlier in the pandemic. For others, omicron has sent them back into “Hunker Down” mode after a summer breather.
In our ever-changing pandemic dynamics, omicron is changing the way we socialize in five major ways.
1. Testing before social gatherings is becoming the norm
Milestone birthdays and anniversaries celebrated with family and friends have often been virtual in 2020, with in-person gatherings gaining prominence over the past year as vaccines and boosters allayed fears. This year, Omicron-dominated social psychologist Beverley Fehr of the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, says that “at some social gatherings, the host demands that people take rapid tests.”
“They gather in person, but try to do it in a safer way,” Fehr explains.
At-home tests are becoming easier and easier to get, especially as the government sends out free tests to those who sign up for them.
2. Social distancing and masking are back for some people
A Gallup poll conducted in January reflects changes in behavior due to omicron.
Of 1,569 adults surveyed about behavior in the previous week, more than a third (34 percent) avoided small gatherings, up from previous surveys; 56 percent avoided large crowds; and 41 percent avoid public places, including shops and restaurants.
The survey notes that Omicron’s impact means “many have returned to social distancing behaviors last employed when the pandemic was at its worst.”
As the variant became widespread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on Jan. 14, saying N95 and KN95 masks offer the “highest protection” against COVID-19.
Another survey of 1,161 adults released by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in late January reflects similar behavioral changes due to omicron. More respondents said they avoid other people as much as possible, stay away from large groups and wear masks around others than in December.
3. Hugs might be on hold
Some felt secure when it came to hugs last year, but Omicron blasted that show of warmth and support. Now, experts say, before you hug someone, you should ask and wait for an answer.
“There are markedly different types of responses to people’s perceptions of risk and resulting behavior based on how much risk they perceive,” says psychologist David Cates, director of behavioral health at Omaha-based Nebraska Medicine.
Those less concerned are “behaving and feeling pretty much as usual,” he says. “But if your risk tolerance is low and you tend to worry about your health or you’re a more risk-averse person, you might even be more afraid because [omicron] is so transferrable.”