How ‘Hot Vax Summer’ Became ‘Pandemic-Drought-Wildfire Bummer’

Saying goodbye to the summer that wasn’t.

hot vax summer
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When California first went into COVID lockdown in the spring of 2020, my favorite question to ask people was, What is your post-pandemic fantasy?

One of mine was very simple: to go to a coffee shop on a hot summer day, when the air-conditioning was up so high it made me shiver, and sit inside for a while sipping an iced coffee without a mask.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

By May, summer 2021 looked like the fulfillment of this fantasy and many more. To read the headlines, we were entering “hot vax summer,” a grand reopening after a prolonged separation from our families, our friends, our favorite carefree behaviors. Californians were ready for fun and human contact: the state prepared for lifting its tier system for COVID restrictions, and residents got vaccinated at high rates (at first).

Now, as it’s coming to an end, summer 2021 will be remembered as the season that failed to live up to expectations.

It happened quickly. By early summer, we’d added “Delta variant” to our vocabularies, filed alongside “social distancing” and “quarantine.” COVID anxiety returned. Diners, once eager for the simple pleasure of eating inside restaurants, started canceling reservations as the service industry was just beginning to get back on its feet. Musicians canceled concerts or backed out of festivals—many now require proof of vaccine or a recent negative COVID test to attend shows.

Disneyland reopened with the rest of the state in June, then backtracked and added mask requirements indoors after reports of breakthrough cases. (Disneyland does not require patrons to be vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID test, though it’s “strongly recommended.”) And in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and the Bay Area, mask mandates returned, regardless of vaccination status.

And the great outdoors, which offered socially distant solace during last summer’s lockdowns, couldn’t provide the same comfort in the West this summer. National Parks brought in hoards of vacation-starved adventurers and, with them, hours-long lines and littered trails. Scientists recorded record-breaking heat waves in the Pacific Northwest and “exceptional” (a step past “extreme”) drought in parts of California. Wildfires spread throughout the West, coating states in smoky skies and bad air quality. On August 24, Lake Tahoe, already plagued by smoke from the Dixie Fire starting in July, found itself downwind of the Caldor Fire and reported the worst air quality in the world, hitting an AQI of 448. Anything above 150 is unhealthy; 448 qualifies as “hazardous” air.

Sometimes I wonder if the California summers of my childhood will become just a memory, something to be experienced at a distance or from a screen like my 21st birthday or virtual college graduation, or the coworkers I met over Zoom during my summer internship.

There’s still hope for a “hot vax fall” (“temperate vax fall,” maybe?). With the Pfizer vaccine’s FDA approval, and vaccines decreasing COVID death rates, there are a few reasons to be hopeful. Science has caught up remarkably fast so far, and it’s possible that we only have to be careful and wait out the virus for one more season before I can sit inside that fantasy coffee shop. Of course, I’ll probably need to adjust my wish and order a hot drink.

That said, I really prefer iced coffee. It would’ve been nice to have had a hot vax summer.•

Jessica Blough is an assistant editor at Alta Journal.
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