It was a warm September evening, perfect for a socially distanced outdoor gathering. When she arrived at her friends’ house in rural Pennsylvania, Karen — who asked that we only use her first name to protect her friends’ privacy — dutifully donned her mask and walked straight to the back patio. The hosts, close friends of hers, had planned their get-together carefully. They set up chairs more than six feet apart on their patio, they asked everyone to bring their own drinks, and they planned to order individual meals from a restaurant to avoid sharing food. Although the other two families had their kids in tow, Karen left her two young children at home with her husband, worried that they wouldn’t be able to stay socially distant. After getting settled on the patio, they all took off their masks and began catching up.
For the first few hours, everything went to plan. Then, one of the kids got up to show off his Pokémon cards, walking from person to person and breaking the six-foot rule in the process. No one, however, said anything. Soon after, the sun set and the temperature dropped, and one of the hosts suggested that they make a fire and move down to the lawn.
“At that point, it just somehow morphed into a regular party, and nobody kept any distance anymore,” recalls Karen, who has otherwise been very careful throughout the pandemic. Since March, she has been ordering curbside groceries to avoid shopping indoors; she hasn’t eaten inside a restaurant; she hasn’t been to the gym or taken her kids to a playground. Yet Karen didn’t speak up when she realized the party was suddenly breaking all the rules she’d been so carefully following. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m standing right next to my friend, and we’re talking, and it feels really good — this feels like normal times,’” she said. Later in the evening, Karen remembers someone saying “Well, we’re definitely not six feet apart anymore,” and everyone laughing and carrying on.
Social forces have a strong hold on us and shape our choices even…