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A Time of COVID-19 Confusion: To Attend the U.S. Open or Not?

An enticing invitation from a friend turned into a source for concern, and ultimately resigned disappointment

By Jill Smolowe

I'm not a COVID-19-phobe. Honest. Since the relaxation of restrictions last spring, I've attended two indoor theatrical productions (masked), five outdoor concerts (unmasked), a modest-sized indoor party (unmasked) and a large outdoor barbecue (unmasked). I've also dined indoors at several restaurants (unmasked), played outdoor pickleball (unmasked) and worked out regularly at a Pilates studio (masked, then unmasked, now re-masked).

Close up of a tennis court. Next Avenue, U.S. Open, Tennis, COVID 19
Credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Like many of you, I've been eager to break through the dreariness of isolation and reconnect with friends, activities, in short, life.

But after much anguished consideration, I've just cancelled plans with a dear friend to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament — and terrible as I feel about disappointing her, I know it's the right decision for me.

Like many of you, I've been eager to break through the dreariness of isolation and reconnect with friends, activities, in short, life.

The opportunity first presented itself in late July via a birthday card from my friend, who lives on the West coast. To celebrate my birthday, she wrote, she'd like me to join her for a day of matches at the U.S. Open. Thrilled that she would be on the East coast and that I'd have an opportunity to spend time with her after a prolonged absence, I said yes.

I didn't give safety considerations a thought. On the day her invitation landed, The New York Times was reporting a nationwide new coronavirus caseload of below 14,000, the lowest since March 2020. More than two months had passed since Centers for Disease Control and Preventtion (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky had told those of us who'd been vaxxed that we could "participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physically distancing."

Hallelujah.

In giddy anticipation, I laid my plans. To avoid public buses and trains, I decided that I'd drive into Manhattan from my home in suburban New Jersey. True, this would mean sucking up punishing parking costs. But hey, I reasoned, look at all I'd saved in transit costs these last 18 months. (I used to commute to the city daily; I haven't set foot in Manhattan even once since the days of lockdown.)

I wasn't concerned about my friend's plan for us to connect on a subway platform below the Port Authority bus terminal so we could ride out to Queens together. For months, I'd been hearing nothing but glowing reports about subway stations being so clean, "I swear, you can eat off the floors."

And a day in the sun, sans masks? What could be nicer? 

My Concerns Began to Climb

But as I began to count down the weeks to my meet-up with my friend, the number of new COVID-19 cases began to tick steadily upward. (As of this writing, The New York Times count for new daily cases stands at 156,886, roughly where it was last November when we were all making do with much-shrunken Thanksgiving gatherings.)

Fine, I thought. I'll wear a mask. Not that I relished the prospect of wearing a mask for several hours in the blazing sun. Moreover, I still haven't figured out how to avoid befogged eyeglasses while be-masked. Given the distance between my seat and the action on the court, I knew this would definitely be a prescription-sunglasses day, all day.

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A week before the scheduled rendezvous, my concerns began to climb. Though the COVID-19 count in the New York area remains manageable, relative to other parts of the country, was it prudent to attend an event where I'd be surrounded by people, many of whom wouldn't be wearing a mask or would be wearing one purposelessly (but understandably) pulled below their noses so they could breathe (or, like me, not fog up their glasses)? Did this have the hallmarks of a superspreader event?

On Aug. 27, word came that America's biggest tennis tournament had buckled to pressure from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and would now require spectators to provide proof of vaccination before gaining entry.

"Please don't hate me for bailing on you," I said.

That might have eased my concerns were it not for another disaster that was also gaining momentum: Hurricane Ida. Now, weather reports were indicating that the hurricane would dump a lot of water on New York City on the same day that I was scheduled to attend the tournament.

Though the U.S. Open organizers pledged "extra measures" to speed up the open-air line, I was skeptical. When I'd attended a theatrical event in Massachusetts a few weeks earlier, many minutes had ticked by to handle a crowd of a few hundred. This crowd was expected to be full capacity: more than 14,000.

The picture crystallized: me, soaked from waiting in line, sitting shoulder to shoulder with 14,000 people in Louis Armstrong Stadium, where the retractable roof would likely as not be closed to keep out the elements, watching matches through fogged glasses as I struggled to breath beneath a mask.

When I told my husband I was thinking of bailing, he said, unsurprisingly, "You've been thinking about this for weeks."

The Disappointment of Reality

Yeah, I had. But I'd been so dreading disappointing my friend that I hadn't really been listening to myself.

"I can't help wondering if I'm being a complete wuss," I said to a suburban friend during a walk (sans masks).

"There is no wuss factor here," she responded in a tone that brooked no argument.

She then told me that she'd recently made plans to join relatives in the city for a meal before a subset proceeded on to (yup) the U.S. Open. As she thought about being seated with about a dozen people indoors around a restaurant table, she felt a "heavy feeling" that wouldn't go away.

After a few days, she reluctantly told some relatives that she wasn't going to attend. Their response? "Yeah, we're thinking of cancelling, too."

The friend who gifted me a day at the U.S. Open was similarly understanding, though she intends to go. (Happily, someone else will be meeting her for the evening matches.)

"Please don't hate me for bailing on you," I said.

"People have to do what makes them comfortable," my friend responded, without any hint of judgment or rancor.

"Still friends?"

"Still friends," she reassured me.

I continue to feel terrible about leaving my friend with an empty seat at her side. But my concerns about being a wuss are slowly evaporating. The truth is, I'm relieved not to have to mix it up with 14,000 other people. Very relieved.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com. Read More
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