It’s Thanksgiving in the US next week, a dry run for many of us for Christmas, which is to say an opportunity to make peace with not going anywhere or seeing anyone. With a quarter of a million Americans dead and the virus still raging, the sensible course of action is to sit this one out. Order in pizza and wings (with a jumbo tip for your delivery person), load up Disney+ and try to enjoy a few days on the sofa. For nine months, we have been strengthening these muscles; now is the time to use them.
Of course, that is not, in all likelihood, how things will play out. The closure of the public schools in New York this week was a response to the Covid test positivity rate climbing above 3%, but was also, one imagines, put in place in anticipation of a greater surge after Thanksgiving. City-wide school closure makes no real sense given the apparent lack of transmission in schools and the huge variance in test positivity rates between neighbourhoods – my own, in Manhattan, is a shade over 1% with no recorded exposure at our school, while areas of Staten Island are peaking at 6%. It seems bizarre on this basis to shut down the whole system.
But it also seems bizarre that we’re haggling over the holidays. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, is riding the flipside of his popularity during the first wave of the pandemic and not handling it well, snapping at reporters and continuing his peevish feud with the mayor. If I have any sympathy for the man, it is for the scale of the challenge he faces when it comes to getting New Yorkers to forfeit their holidays. When the governor announced last week that, starting today, private gatherings would be limited to 10 people – far too many as it is – the police promptly popped up to say this was a restriction they wouldn’t be enforcing. Most of us know it: that the least we’ll pay for spending Thanksgiving or Christmas together will be another month of lockdown; and many would agree that, on paper anyway, it’s a price not worth paying. And yet we can’t do it.
Or rather, we can’t do it emphatically enough. It’s like the fantasy maths you do to launder an extravagance – I won’t take a $7 cab ride, ergo I can justify those $200 Apple AirPods. Or, in this case: I’ve been really good since March, the vaccines are coming … and goddammit, I deserve a day off. Relative to other parts of the US and the world, New York is a model of compliance – we wear our masks in the street, we don’t throw big dinner parties and, save for the odd super-spreader wedding or funeral, by and large we do as we’re told. Surely there’s enough good behaviour in the bank to sneak in a quick gathering at Thanksgiving?
Obviously, no is the only answer to this. That’s not how viruses work. Movement and socialising guarantees viral spread, and you can’t bargain your way out of it. Since the pandemic began, it has served as an odd thought experiment to consider that if everyone in the entire world had been able to stay home for two weeks, the whole disaster would have ground to a halt. As in almost every other areas of life, we remain our own worst enemies.
I should, probably, cancel my modest Thanksgiving plans, spooked by the numbers and the knowledge that I will be contributing to a general laxness that will only prolong this endless, final phase of the pandemic. I also know that, via a lot of weaselly internal litigation, I have already made up my mind. It’s dark at 4pm, the president still hasn’t conceded, and now the kids have been thrown out of school. The balance sheet of the universe requires some tiny input of joy that doesn’t come from binge-watching HBO.
Next Thursday, we will bundle up, put on our masks and sit on the subway for an hour to visit friends in Brooklyn. At the Thanksgiving table there will be five adults and three kids, comfortably within Cuomo’s restrictions, and in a loosey-goosey way – blown apart by school attendance, childcare and the heaving numbers in the playgrounds – people we’ve defined since the summer as being part of our pod. It will probably be fine, while also being defiantly dumb and proof of how much of our lives are governed by magical thinking.
The other day, while leaving the elevator in my building, I realised I’d forgotten to put on a mask, and for the few moments it took me to turn around and head back I did something so childishly absurd it has come to stand in my mind for the irrationality of this whole period: I held my breath.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist