Stop saying we can't back to normal after vaccines

First, we should say loudly and repeatedly how great the vaccines are and how much good they can accomplish. (Dolly Parton and Bill Gates—an odd couple!—are doing this better than many public health professionals.) Recognizing these truths doesn’t preclude ongoing risk mitigation while vaccine distribution is underway, and this positive slant will help overcome some people’s vaccine hesitancy.

Next, we should increasingly distinguish between public and private social interactions (and, to the agency’s credit, the forthcoming CDC guidance moves in this direction). In private gatherings among a known group of people, there’s no reason for vaccinated people to be masked, distanced, or—as some scientists in the U.K. absurdly advised—refusing to hug their kids. After vaccination, we can hang out with friends, family, and maybe even coworkers, depending on workplace format, without the precautions we continue to take among strangers.

Meanwhile, in public, indoor spaces where we interact with people we don’t know, it makes sense to keep the masks and distancing going, including for the vaccinated, until vaccine distribution is complete. That’s not because vaccinated people still spread the disease in any significant way. It’s because other people in the grocery store have no way of knowing who’s vaccinated and who’s merely irresponsible. Dropping masks early would for that reason create unnecessary fear and chaos.