Omicron is the latest variant to arrive in the United States, and everyone knows the drill by now: wear a mask, keep away from crowded spaces, observe social distancing, stay home if you’re exposed to the virus, feeling sick, or test positive.
Mandating such steps made sense early in the pandemic. In some cases, it still might. But mandates can’t last forever: as we know all too well from our own fatigue, the longer the pandemic drags on, the harder it is to enforce restrictions, no matter the evidence indicating that these policies will keep everyone safe.
Those practices either have to become norms — generally accepted practices that are upheld without the government needing to enforce them and without experts needing to remind us constantly of their importance — or they’re going to fade away. It’s one thing for the government to mandate vaccinations, it’s something else to compel people to permanently adopt new behavioral practices like staying six feet away from others.
The most effective public health policies might not be the ones dictated by the CDC — rather, they could be the norms we establish and commit to following in our families, workplaces, and communities. Though statements from public health experts and politicians may inform our decisions, the choices we make about whether to mask up in the movie theater are ultimately our own.
We hold one another accountable far more successfully than some distant political body, and should lean into our innate desire to keep ourselves and the people we love safe. And the presence of a new, potentially more dangerous variant serves as a reminder that those affected by the pandemic aren’t just the unvaccinated or immunocompromised — each of us assumes some degree of risk and responsibility.
In most parts of the country, lockdowns of the sort we experienced early in the pandemic are not coming back, no matter how bad the virus might get. How much we’ve internalized public health guidelines, and made them part of our own individual routines, will determine the course of the virus as much as any new mandate.
Ivy Scott is a Globe Opinion contributor.