Philly’s coronavirus response

What is up with young adults in Philly not taking coronavirus seriously? Here’s what they said

Some admit they’re being cavalier, while others attempt a safe balance.

Diners at a Center City restaurant in late July. Masks are not mandatory when you're sitting at a table.

Diners at a Center City restaurant in late July. Masks are not mandatory when you're sitting at a table.

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

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After six months of pandemic quarantine, some of Philadelphia’s younger residents are no longer content to spend their days isolating themselves from the rest of society.

“We’re hard-headed,” said Monyah McQueen, a 24-year-old visiting friends in the city. “We like to do what we want to do.”

In multiple neighborhoods over the summer, young adults have been seen partying in groups that number in the hundreds and lack social distancing. They may have heard they’re more likely to survive than older folks if they catch the virus — and many seem willing to take the risk.

“I’m ready to treat everything like it’s back to normal,” Steven Garcia, 18, told Billy Penn and WHYY.

Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley have repeatedly cautioned young people against a false sense of security and warned against hanging out in close proximity. In mid-August, Philadelphians aged 20 to 34 made up roughly 30% of new coronavirus cases in the city, according to health department data, more than any other age group.

“We are concerned about infections in that younger group,” Farley said in July, “because they could spread it to older people that they’re in contact with.”

Even young adults who have personal experience with the coronavirus are feeling increasingly ready to abandon the precautions.

McQueen is a hospital employee. She herself contracted COVID-19 this spring. Still, at the beginning of August, she walked down South Street without a face mask. “People shame me and my friends sometimes for going places,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we’re all fine.”

It hasn’t been easy for young folks. Milestones like graduating high school, attending prom and starting college in a dorm abruptly slipped through their fingers.

And plenty are still taking the pandemic seriously, including millennials raising their own families and gen-Zers desperate to keep their parents safe. Many young Black Philadelphians know the virus has disproportionately affected their communities. Some are immunocompromised themselves.

“It’s surprising to me, that there’s this lack of empathy toward other people’s lives,” said Rebeca Cruz-Esteves of Manayunk, 30. “People are dying because of it. That should be enough to make you want to stop and think about who you could expose.”

A group of friends plays basketball in South Philadelphia in late July

A group of friends plays basketball in South Philadelphia in late July

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Going stir-crazy and making assumptions about immunity

One Saturday in mid-August, Refia, 23, walked down South Street with two friends, chatting. One of them had a mask hanging down around their chin. She agreed to speak with reporters if her last name was not used.

At the start of the local lockdown in early spring, Refia said, she was “so paranoid.” But that changed as the months wore on, and isolation took its toll.

“Staying inside one room for like four, five months maybe, it’s not really healthy,” she offered.

The claim about going stir-crazy isn’t without merit, but there are ways to get outdoors without endangering other people — that’s where masks and social distancing guidelines come in.

Lawncrest resident Garcia graduated high school in June. Since then, he’s been fine staying at home, he said, getting social contact through multiplayer video games.

His grandparents and his parents all contracted COVID-19 during the past few months, and now appear to have recovered. Health experts are still unclear about the long term effects of the disease, but looking at his relatives, Garcia feels like it’s time to get back to real life.

“I’m ready to go to a movie theater that’s packed,” he said. “I’m ready to go to a mall. Everyone around us probably developed immunity.”

The science on immunity from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, remains unclear.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced recently that folks who’ve had the disease can show immunity for up to three months — but the longevity of the antibodies beyond that point is unknown. Some who’ve already contracted the virus managed to catch it a second time.

Seeking ‘a slice of normalcy’ with masks and distancing

For much of July and August, Philly’s 20- to 35-year-olds saw the biggest increase in new coronavirus cases, higher than any other age group in the city.

Jessica Stern, who’s 31 and lives in South Philadelphia, took isolation seriously during the first few months. As it’s gotten warmer, she’s started to cautiously expand her bubble. She’ll meet friends in the park, sitting without masks on blankets at least 6 feet apart.

“I tend to see the same people who are also taking the same sort of precautions that my partner and I are taking,” Stern said.

Her friend Tara Taylor has done some outdoor dining and hit up a few breweries. “It was very distanced,” she said. “It was nice to have a little slice of normalcy and chat with a stranger.”

Others say they feel they need to watch out specifically because of their heritage. In the U.S., both Black and Latino people have tested positive at disproportionately higher rates compared to their shares of the country’s total population.

Nikela Roderique, 23, is comfortable leaving the house now — so long as she’s following guidelines set by the government and local businesses. But as a Black woman, she still feels she has to take the virus seriously.

“It’s disproportionately harmful to the Black community at the end of the day, so we have to take precaution,” Roderique said. “We don’t have a choice. It’s not that we’re out here doing whatever. That’s not the case.”

Jessica Stern, Tara Taylor, and Vanessa Watson (L to R) say they only meet friends at parks or other open spaces

Jessica Stern, Tara Taylor, and Vanessa Watson (L to R) say they only meet friends at parks or other open spaces

Ximena Conde / WHYY

Making hard sacrifices for family health

Some young adults are taking the danger super seriously.

Eighteen-year-old Lamar Reed is starting his first semester at CCP. He lives with his mother and his aunt, who’s in her 70s — and he recognizes the possibility that he could get them sick. The past few months, he said the only other person he’s been physically close to is his girlfriend. He turned down an invitation to an Airbnb birthday party that promised 10 to 15 guests.

“I was a little bummed I couldn’t go,” Reed said. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to go. I’ve been listening to what my mom’s been telling me. She wants me to stay home, and I want to stay home for her sake.”

Rebeca Cruz-Esteves, the 30-year-old from Manayunk, has already dealt with a family member taken by the coronavirus. She watched her father’s otherwise healthy cousin die within two weeks of being diagnosed.

“It’s really sad,” she said. “I don’t think people realize you really can take someone’s life from this.”

Cruz-Esteves is six months pregnant with her first child, and was recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.

She’s currently planning a virtual baby shower to avoid exposing any of her loved ones. She’s told her father he likely can’t be in the delivery room for the birth — she’s due in December, and she anticipates there might be a winter coronavirus spike.

The many invitations to cookouts and birthday parties she received have all been politely declined.

“I’ve lost friends during this time,” Cruz-Esteves said. “I’ve had pressure from friends that don’t really realize they are putting themselves at risk. I’ve seen that on social media, and I can’t afford to do that.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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