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How to go out and not spread coronavirus this summer
People lie in social distancing circles at Dolores Park in San Francisco, California, on May 24. | Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images What’s the best — and riskiest — way to see friends, take a trip, or get spiffed up? We talked to experts to find out. As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, many of us are feeling desperate to see friends and family in person, keep kids busy, and get the heck out of town. And with the July Fourth weekend before us, it’s extremely tempting to shed our crusty quarantine skins of spring and seize a glorious, social summer. But should we? It can be difficult to know since the situation across the US varies so much, as this map of county-level risk based on the number of new daily cases, from Harvard’s Global Health Institute and Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, shows: Harvard Public Health Institute Covid-19 risk levels by county, as of June 29. Find the latest interactive map here. Meanwhile, guidance on the safest way to enjoy socializing, playgrounds, and vacations is inconsistent. States, towns, and cities are not uniformly enforcing — or even encouraging — safest practices as they lift (or in some cases, reinstate) coronavirus restrictions. But one pattern is clear: As some placeshave relaxed social distancing measures before getting the virus under control, their case numbers have surged. Which suggests that there are probably many things, like packing together in indoor bars, that we shouldn’t be doing — even if they are technically permitted. “The Covid-19 situation in the US has changed over the past couple of weeks to the extent that no one should be out without a mask, and everyone should be trying to distance as much as feasible, even if retail [and other businesses] are opening up,” Krysia Lindan, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco, wrote in an email to Vox. Public health experts are particularly worried about the upcoming holiday because they say Memorial Day weekend festivities helped seed the current outbreaks in places like Arizona and Texas. “I’m very concerned, especially given this coming weekend, that the same types of spikes and surges could be seen not just in the places that are currently experiencing surges but in places that have already experienced surges, and in ones that haven’t yet,” Josh Barocas, an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University and an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center, saidin a recent Infectious Diseases Society of America briefing. Getting out and about is risky in large part because “people can transmit the virus before they start feeling symptoms,” says Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health. By some estimates, about one in five people who get the virus never develop symptoms. And for those who do end up getting sick, many have the highest level of virus in their bodies before they start feeling ill. So, Murray says, “we can’t just rely on how we’re feeling today.” Or, for that matter, how the people around us are feeling. If you’re in one of the higher-risk orange or red counties in the Harvard map above, sheltering in place is probably the safest move. If you’re in a yellow or green county, you may be ready to venture out, and might be asking: What’s the safest way to have an outdoor get-together with some friends? Is it okay to travel this summer? I lost a tooth filling in April — is it safe to go to the dentist? I checked in with experts about the best and worst ways to do seven common things this summer, and here’s what they told me. (Risk is ranked only for each category, so a “moderate risk” option for one category might not carry the same level of risk as a “moderate risk” option for a different category.) Get out of town The first thing to know is that traveling from a high-risk area to (or through) a low-risk one increases the chances that you will spread the virusto places where more people might be out and about. “I don’t want to encourage anyone to think that gallivanting around during the summer is a good idea,” Lindan says. Safest: Camp Be sure to camp — and hike — at least 6 feet from others. Make plans and reservations ahead of time, and bring disinfecting supplies. To get there, “drive with people in your household and who you know who are either uninfected or have been unexposed and/or safely practicing social distancing for two weeks,” Lindan says. Keep in mind that using public bathrooms, especially those that might not be cleaned super-regularly or those that are very busy, ups the risk for transmitting the virus. “Wash your hands after using the toilet, and always use a mask,” Lindan notes. Next safest: Get a vacation rental “Find out how long since the rental was last occupied and what type of clearing has been done between guests,” Lindan says. If other people were staying there more recently than 72 hours before your arrival, make sure surfaces have been wiped down. (The common booking site VRBO has detailed cleaning guidelines for property owners, and Airbnb has a cleaning commitment hosts can make — or opt for a 72-hour buffer window between guests.) Also, drive there, using the above precautions. Moderate risk: Hotels “Find out what precautions the hotel is taking,” Lindan says. Hotels should be using enhanced cleaning protocols; staff should be wearing masks and being tested regularly, and if anyone has tested positive there, staff who were in close contact should follow local health department instructions. And add one more item to your packing list: “Bring your own disinfectant and use it,” Lindan says. Riskier: Traveling by plane The level of risk likely depends on several things, Lindan says: how crowded the plane is, how long the flight is, where you are traveling from and to, and how busy the airports are. Before you fly, “ask the airline how far apart the passengers will be seated,” she notes (ideally it would be at least 6 feet), as well as what type of cleaning they are doing between flights (an industry group has released aircraft cleaning guidelines, but it is up to individual carriers to implement them and determine if every step is completed for each new group of passengers or just during longer stops). Also, she says to aim for a window seat with no one next to you or behind you. Although that might not be possible on all flights now, as some major airlines have announced that they will once again start booking entirely full flights. Takeaway: Before you leave your area, look to see how much the virus is spreading there, where you are hoping to go, and any places you will pass through along the way. Murray advises that no one should be traveling to or from the hardest-hit areas of Arizona right now, for example (and probably Texas, Florida, and many other Sunbelt states). Traveling from a low-risk area to (or through) a high-risk one means you will be more likely to pick up the virus, sonot only will you be more likely toget sick, but you might also bring it back to your community when you return home. See older folks, like parents and grandparents, or other high-risk people Safest: Virtual visit “Call, email, or communicate through one of the services that allow you to see and hear each other virtually,” Nancy Nielsen, a dean for health policy at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo and former president of the American Medical Association, wrote in an email. If you are wanting to connect with someone who is in an assisted living facility, inpatient facility, or hospital, many of those places can help you get set up with a virtual chat — in part because it also helps them keep risks lower. Next safest: Outdoors Especially if you are visiting someone who lives in an assisted living facility, try to arrange a way to visit outdoors away from others who might be high-risk, such as people 65 and older. But if you must visit near the facility, “You would for sure always want to be wearing a mask and keeping 6 feet of distance as possible,” Murray says. Moderate risk: In-home visit This option depends a lot on how well everyone involved has been keeping up best practices of distancing (and how widely the virus is spreading in the area). “This is the question you need to ask yourself,” Lindan says: “If you are not being safe by not wearing a mask and avoiding crowds, do you want to infect and potentially kill your grandmother? If you haven’t been very careful in the previous two weeks, then don’t put your elderly relatives at risk — do a Zoom call.” Riskier: Traveling to stay This one depends on the above factors but also on where people are coming from and going to, as well as how likely you (or they) are to have been exposed to the virus, Murray says. For example, if you are an essential worker or health care professional, she advises a 14-day quarantine (staying at home and avoiding contact with others) first. Or if traveling there involves contact with lots of other people, she suggests planning on a 14-day self-isolation period (no contact with others) nearby before going to their home. Lindan agrees: “If you are visiting them for a long period, be sure to have self-isolated for two weeks beforehand or be very careful about your social distancing.” Riskiest: Indoors at a care facility “The highest risk would be actually visiting a retirement home where there are a lot of elderly people in an enclosed space,” Murray says. Takeaways Be especially cautious if you are seeing older people or others with higher risk for severe Covid-19 complications. And you can do other things to stay connected with these folks that doesn’t involve being in the same room, says Nielsen. “Shop for them, depositing groceries outside their front door.” Or say hi through a closed window. And definitely skip large groups. “This is not a good time for family gatherings,” says Nielsen. And it’s something we will need to accept for many months to come. “Those may not be very safe until a safe and effective vaccine is available,” Nielsen says. We only have to look to the May surprise birthday party with 25 guests (hosted by a presymptomatic carrier) that ended up spreading Covid-19 to 18 people — including two people in their 80s and one person with cancer — and sent many to the hospital, to see how easily the virus can spread at agathering, putting older relatives (and others) at risk. Get routine medical care Safest: Routine medical visits. “If you need a physical exam or Pap smear, get one,” Lindan says. Make sure that the office or facility you visit is cleaning all surfaces, has providers using N95 masks, and screening patients for Covid-19 (and keeping those who might be positive away from other patients), she notes. Safer: Dental procedures. “Dentists have been using masks and eye shields for a long time, so going to a dentist is probably fine,” Lindan says. Especially for the patient. (“The risk is more to the dentist or dental hygienist than to you, because of aerosols and droplets that are inevitable during procedures,” Nielsen says.) Moderate risk: Eye appointments. “It depends on what the ophthalmologist is doing,” Lindan says. If they are taking the best safety precautions, including disinfecting everything (surfaces, instruments, etc.), and wearing gloves and an N95 mask, that makes it safer. (The American Optometric Association has put out guidelines for best practices for the field.) But “given there is a lot of potential eye contact with the instruments, hands, etc., and that Covid-19 can be transmitted to the [mucous membrane of the eye], this might be higher risk,” Lindan says. “Of course, if you have an urgent eye problem, you [will] have to be evaluated.” Takeaways “Go now for those medical and dental services you’ve been putting off,” Nielsen says. “Medical and dental offices are acutely aware of risk,” she says. Everyone should be wearing a mask at all times — except for the time you might need to take one off to have your nose or mouth examined. These visits should be safe and can be essential for maintaining other important areas of health. For her part, Nielsen says, “Go for the elective surgery, Pap smears, physicals, eye exams you’ve postponed.” (There is a chance, though, that as Covid-19 case numbers spike in some areas, elective procedures will be put on hold to maintain hospital capacity.) See friends Safest: Virtual hangouts You might have video chat fatigue by now, but it is still the absolute safest answer for socializing with those outside of your household, Nielsen says. Next safest: Outside gathering “Getting together in person is more soul-satisfying, of course,” Nielsen says. And you don’t need expansive empty parks for this. You can sit on a friend’s porch or patio so long as you can safely stay at least 6 feet apart. If there is food or drink, people should bring their own. And definitely avoid anything shared or in a buffet style. Also: “No hugs or handshakes!” Nielsen says. If you’re considering ducking inside a friend’s home to use the bathroom, the riskiness of that depends on how closely those in the home — and you — have been following physical distancing. If you decide all have been adhering well, it should be okay — just wear a mask, wash your hands well, and thoroughly disinfect surfaces before you leave the room. Should you wear masks when you see friends outdoors? Lindan says that “if you’re outside with a friend who has been cautious and probably not exposed, you probably don’t have to wear a mask” if you keep up physical distancing. But that is something to be mindful of because staying physically far enough apart from someone you know well is difficult — even if you’re both trying your best. “It’s difficult to maintain these social distances,” Lindan says. “It’s not how we live as humans.” But distance and fresh air don’t necessarily prevent the spread of the virus. “Spewing respiratory droplets over a longer distance can occur if someone has a vigorous cough,” Lindan says, or if people are talking loudly or singing — even outdoors. Moderate risk: Inside a home The level of risk here is strongly tied to how careful you and your friend (and whoever else you and they live with or see regularly) are being. If everyone has been extremely careful, you might be able to “wear a mask until all are safely distanced, then don them again if you’ll pass people closely,” Nielsen says. (Lindan goes so far as to suggest that “if they are not maintaining social distancing or wearing a mask when outside, then maybe they are not your friends.”) But still no hugs, handshakes, or shared foods. Riskier: Meal at a restaurant “Sit outside if possible,” Nielsen says. The restaurant should have tables spaced at least 6 feet apart. The staff should be masked, “as should all guests until beginning to eat or drink,” she says. Riskiest: Crowded bar or event As far as bars are concerned, Lindan says, “don’t go into them ... unless you can drink outside at a distance from others.” Even if you enter with a mask on, you and others will take masks off to drink. “Plus, getting intoxicated is likely to result in less ability to continue to be safe,” she says. “It is likely that upticks in cases in some places are the result of parties and bars.” Add to this that “it’s more than the lack of social distancing,” Nielsen says. “It’s that speaking loudly, shouting, cheering, etc., have much more potential for droplet spread” that could spread the virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases echoed these sentiments at his June 30 Senate hearing: “Bars: really not good,” he said. “Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news. We really have got to stop that.” Takeaways The bottom line is that “Nothing has changed about precautions to prevent yourself and others from becoming infected,” Lindansays. “Wear a mask at all times that you are out, except when you are eating or drinking, which ideally would occur at least 6 feet away from others in your ‘safe’ group. Clean/disinfect your hands. Being outside for activities, for seeing friends, and for eating is better than inside.” Keep children busy Safest: Home — or outdoors with household members Everyone might be stir-crazy by now and very tired of one another. But keeping children with members of the household is the safest for not just preventing them from getting sick (which does happen) but also to reduce the chances of their spreading the virus to others (data on this is still evolving). Safer: Playgrounds A quiet playground, especially one that has just been cleaned, could potentially be okay (especially if transmission in your area is low). Adults and children over 2 should wear masks and maintain physical distancing, and everyone should disinfect hands frequently. “You can try to clean off playground equipment before your child uses it, but it’s probably easier to periodically clean your child’s hands while they are at the playground,” Lindan says. Moderate risk: Play dates To keep play dates safest, limit the number of kids and families involved — ideally to just one other family that you trust to be keeping up good distancing practices. Perhaps most important is to “be aware of what the parents are doing,” Lindan says. “Parents pose the most risk. So avoid kibitzing in close proximity with parents whose social distancing practices you are unaware of and who aren’t wearing masks.” Also, ask other parents to wear masks when they are around your children. Riskier: Camps Lindan recommends trying to avoid sleepaway camps for now because it is hard to be sure counselors and other staff have all been distancing and wearing masks outside of their time with the children. “Camp experiences that are based outdoors and with smaller groups of children are better compared to an [indoor] computer camp, for example,” she says. Takeaways Any activity with children is particularly tricky because, especially with very young children, they are unlikely to be able to follow all of the health recommendations (staying away from other people, not touching common surfaces, wearing a mask correctly, etc.). A lot remains to be learned about the rate at which children transmit the virus to one another and to adults. And although children do not seem to experience more typical severe Covid-19 infections as frequently as adults do, they can still get very sick and die as a result of the virus. Get a personal treatment Safest: DIY Want a haircut? Manicure? Back massage? “The safest thing to do would be to do it at home or have a roommate or housemate do it for you,” Murray says. Next safest: Quick haircut Murray suggests this could be fairly safe “if you’re getting a 15-minute haircut, especially if you’re all wearing masks and you’re 6 feet away from other clients,” she says. Moderate risk: Manicure or pedicure These should be done with a plexiglass shield between the client and aesthetician, Murray notes. Also: Everyone should be wearing masks, and clients should be spaced far apart. If you’re deciding between the two nail services, “a pedicure may be somewhat safer than a manicure, since you’re not so close to one another, and you are unlikely to touch your face with your feet,” Lindan says. But it’s not entirely about the extremity you choose. “Think about how long you are going to be there and in close proximity to other clients and staff,” she says. Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Getting manicures and pedicures pose a moderate risk compared to other salon-type treatments; both clients and aestheticians should wear masks and have a plexiglass shield between them. Riskier: Lengthier hair treatments Dyeing, relaxing, and other longer-duration hair treatments up the risk simply because you’re spending longer indoors in a salon. “You might not be in such close contact with [a stylist], but you are going to be in their studio for a long time,” Murray says. Murray also adds to this category of risk: massages and body waxing, like leg waxes (“if you yell when they pull the wax off, it’s more risky for the person doing the procedure,” she says. “And it can take a long time.”) Nielsen also suggests tattoos are in this level of risk “due to proximity and prolonged encounter time, even when masks are worn by all.” Riskiest: Eyebrow and face waxing “I would discourage people from getting their face waxed at all,” Murray says. Really any face-based treatment falls in this category, including other eyebrow services, facials, or a shave. Regardless of the treatment, says Lindan, “make sure that all instruments have been sterilized between clients (which should be done regardless), that you and the staff are wearing masks properly and washing hands.” Get around without a car Safest: Walking or cycling The fresh air and not being in sustained proximity to others helps to minimize risk — especially if most everyone is wearing masks when passing close to others. Next safest: Private ride-hail or taxi “The idea would be that it’s just you and the driver, and you could wipe down surfaces that you would touch and wash your hands afterward — and both be wearing masks,” Murray says. You can also keep the windows open to increase air circulation. Moderate risk: Quiet bus or metro “They may be reasonably safe,” Murray says. “If you’re the only person in the subway car, you’re probably fine.” But follow the same good hygiene practices that you probably should use in public transportation anyway: Don’t touch anything you don’t absolutely have to, clean off your hands as soon as you can — and don’t touch your face before you can do so. And when there are a handful of other people, “sit far apart from other passengers,” Lindan adds. Riskiest: Crowded bus or metro “If it starts to look like commuting hours used to, where people are squishing in, you definitely don’t want to get in,” Murray says. Make the summer safer for everyone Most of these activity evaluations depend on whom you are seeing and where you are. “It’s hard to make gradations of risk,” Lindan says. “It depends on what your friends have been doing, and it depends on the transmission in the community.” Before we see anyone these days, it should be part of the new routine to let them know if we are feeling well and if we have traveled in the past two weeks anywhere where Covid-19 cases are prevalent, Nielsen says. It is easy to find out what case levels are like in your area by going to your local health department’s website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Covid-19 Data Tracker, or checking the rate of positive tests available from Johns Hopkins. “Become informed!” Lindan says. “It’s not difficult.” German Lopez/Vox The lesson is that life is very different this summer. And even though some activities are allowed — and even if we see friends and family members engaging in them — that doesn’t mean we should take part. In fact, says Murray, “The types of things people should be doing are the same things they should have been doing since February or March.” These include keeping distance from others, wearing a mask, washing hands frequently with soap and water, and avoiding touching shared surfaces. This isn’t just to help you avoid getting the virus, which, as Murray notes, “sounds very bad even for mild cases.” It is to help stop the spread of the virus to others and ultimately slow the runaway pandemic. Or, as Lindan puts it: “You cannot drive 100 miles per hour on the highway. Even if you want to risk killing yourself, it’s not acceptable to kill others. The same is true for Covid-19.” So for everyone’s sake, try to summer safely. Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance science journalist and the author of Cultured and Octopus! Find her on Twitter at @KHCourage. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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As Domenico Montanaro reported in his writeup of NPR’s polling on the race, “the one group Biden continues to underperform with slightly is Latinos — 59% of Latinos said they’d vote for Biden over Trump, but Clinton won 66% of their votes in 2016.” Trump’s Latino resilience can be easy to overlook because he is objectively losing these voters by a large margin (39 points according to the New York Times). Still, he is losing them by less than he did in 2016, which is strange at a time when his numbers are otherwise falling. Democrats’ baseline assessment is not that this reflects a sudden rightward shift in Hispanic opinion, so much as the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders was by far the Latino community’s choice in the primary, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has not thus far made the kind of major investment in the community that Latino Democrats would like to see. “Familiarity is the best reason,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who represents one of the biggest clutches of Hispanic swing state voters in his Phoenix-area district, tells me. “Most of them will come back but money has to be spent on them.” What’s most interesting about Biden’s relatively soft numbers with this demographic is how closely they parallel the two lingering issues that worry Democrats about the electorate. Despite decades in politics, the former vice president is not that clearly defined in the minds of the public. And despite sky-high unemployment, Trump’s approval on the economy is still in positive terrain. According to a New York Times poll and a Pew poll earlier this week, 50 versus 45 percent of voters, respectively, said they prefer Trump as an economic manager by three points. Biden’s underperformance with Latinos isn’t enough to swing the election as things stand now. The question is whether these economy-focused voters are a canary in the coal mine for what a Trump comeback could look like. 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Her group’s polling includes detailed state-by-state breakdowns, so they can examine small but important populations like Latino communities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Their work confirms that Biden’s numbers, while good, do not show the same kind of big increase in support that he’s seeing with white voters. There’s also a substantial gender gap, with Latinas showing considerably more support for the Democratic nominee than their male counterparts. But, Valencia says, “we aren’t seeing any increase even among Hispanic men for Trump” so much as a very large bloc of uncommitted voters that she’d like to see Democrats put major money into contesting. Equis Research The other factor helping Trump among Hispanic male voters is that they are — or at least were, earlier this spring — open to Trump’s pitch that electoral attention should be focused on the economy rather than on the coronavirus. Biden has two big vulnerabilities At the beginning of June, two political scientists, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, published a paper detailing the results of an experiment on messaging around Trump and Biden. They took a sample of 291 messages — some pro-Trump, some anti-Trump, some pro-Biden, and some anti-Biden — and subjected a sample of 131,742 people to a random selection of two messages each out of the 291. They found that “both positive and negative messages about Biden have significantly larger effects on stated vote choice than either positive or negative messages about Trump.” What’s more, even the tiny impact of the Trump messages may be a kind of statistical illusion. There are two other points of particular interest: Specific pro-Biden messages are more effective than vague messages. Anti-Trump messages didn’t shift voting intention even though they often were effective at shifting perceptions of Trump on the specific subject of the ad. For Broockman and Kalla, this research shows that there is a kind of saturation effect going on with voters. It’s not that you can’t tell people anything new about Trump, it’s just that telling them new things doesn’t make a difference at this point about whether or not they support him. By contrast, new information about Biden shifts votes. Unite the Country, a Super PAC originally formed to support Biden in the primary, has embraced this message and recently started airing pro-Biden ads which had heretofore been rare in the Democratic independent expenditure mix. But Priorities USA, which was the main Democratic Super PAC from the 2016 race and which has generally overshadowed Unite the Country since Biden emerged as the clear nominee, disagrees with that assessment. For Priorities, the key fact is that the campaign is a dynamic battleground that is constantly being shaped and reshaped by the advertising landscape. “In the week following the declaration of a national emergency, [Trump’s] approval jumped 10 percentage points,” notes Priorities USA analytics director Nick Ahamed. “So we intervened to shape voters’ perceptions that it was Trump’s fault.” The good news for Biden is that effort has worked. The public’s assessment of Trump’s Covid-19 response is now dismal and with the pandemic front of mind for most voters, the president’s overall polling has plummeted. Their concern is that while the public is not currently very focused on the economy, voters generally do continue to give Trump an edge there. So if the economy becomes an even more salient topic by the fall, Trump could have a real shot at a rebound. Economy-focused voters like Trump In Equis’s polling, a key driver of the Hispanic gender gap is that Latinos were much more likely than Latinas to express worry about the economy relative to worry about getting sick. Trump’s big remaining hope of winning the election is that surveys show the public still has confidence in his economic management. A June 30 Pew poll showed Biden with an edge on handling race relations, criminal justice issues, and the public health impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But Trump had a three point edge on making good decisions about economic policy. In the New York Times poll that was overall disastrous for Trump, “his approval rating is still narrowly positive on the issue of the economy, with 50 percent of voters giving him favorable marks compared with 45 percent saying the opposite.” Trump’s problem is that a clear majority of voters are focused on other things. The exception to that is Latino men, who Trump is ill-positioned to win over due to his positioning of himself as the candidate of white backlash against Latin American immigration. But Trump is currently doing better than expected with this swath of the electorate, pointing to a possible resurgence in the president’s support among older white voters who are a better cultural fit for him but who are currently focused on the threat of the coronavirus. It seems likely that the shift in the outbreak’s epicenter toward Florida and the Southwest will increase concern about Covid-19 among Latino voters and eliminate Trump’s pocket of strength there. But the larger lesson is not so much about Hispanic voters as the extent to which Biden’s strong standing in the polls is potentially a hostage to the news environment. As long as voters don’t explicitly see economic problems as Trump’s fault, he has hopes for a revival of fortunes. Democrats have more to do to close the sale The tedious, commonsense resolution of the dispute between Broockman/Kalla and Priorities USA is that successful campaigns run both positive and negative ads plus “contrast” ads that mix both. In practice, Priorities continues to test all forms of ads while also relying on a division of labor, expecting the Biden campaign to invest in defining Biden while they perhaps focus more on Trump. Biden’s standing with Hispanic voters, meanwhile, would unquestionably benefit from targeted and sustained investment. But what’s most interesting about Biden’s pocket of weakness here is the extent to which it reflects fairly generic strategic vulnerabilities. Biden is well-known but not sharply defined. And precisely because he’s so well-known, he didn’t generate the burst of bio-focused free media coverage that would have been seen for a more fresh-faced choice. That creates the possibility that sustained attacks from Trump will bring Biden’s numbers down, but also an opportunity for a positive introduction to push them up further. From what we can tell, voter attention on the economy helps Trump — and that’s true even in demographic groups that are not predisposed to be favorable to him. If economic issues acquire greater salience with white voters than with Latino voters, Trump could be in a position for a comeback. That’s why recent Democratic advertising has focused on reminders of Biden’s role as a steward of the 2009 Recovery Act, and on connecting the dots between Trump’s coronavirus response failure and the country’s economic crisis. For now, though, that deal has not been sealed and Biden’s lead — though large — rests on the somewhat unstable foundation of a public that isn’t yet very focused on economic issues. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Midsommar has a deeply trans narrative hiding in plain sight
Dani, the protagonist of Midsommar, finds herself in a strange world that just makes sense to her on some visceral level. | A24 The 2019 horror movie isn’t overtly about trans identities. But it depicted my journey perfectly. For most of my life, I never quite knew what to do around men. My confusion ended up being a bit of a problem — because for most of my life, people were pretty convinced I was a guy. (Spoiler: I wasn’t.) I spent almost all of junior high and high school avoiding athletic pursuits because I didn’t particularly like the forced camaraderie and lewd locker room talk from guys in the showers afterward. I struggled with typical male social codes, and I never quite felt like I had a firm grasp on being the guy in a romantic relationship. Awkwardness and confusion are basically universal across all adolescent experiences, and struggling to understand unspoken social codes is so often true among kids across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. But my awkwardness went beyond that. I viewed manhood as a unique burden to carry, a boulder to push up a hill each and every day. I figured all men felt this way. We are all wondering, I assumed, if it would be easier and better and lighter to be a woman, but, alas, we were not blessed as such and had to continue trudging along. What I know now is that, no, not every other guy was thinking about how hard it was to be a man. They weren’t thinking about how being a woman would be preferable. Today, I understand those thoughts as expressions of gender dysphoria and my own trans feminine identity, because every trans person I’ve talked to has described some variation on that level of discomfort with their assigned gender at birth. That discomfort was signaling something I didn’t know how to listen to at first — I simply wasn’t a man, and the burden I shouldered wasn’t one I had to bear. But it was hard to find fictional representations of this journey to self-realization despite the ubiquity of stories about girls who find themselves falling down rabbit holes into worlds where nothing makes sense. These stories presented a sojourn in Wonderland or Oz or Narnia as a brief pause in a growing girl’s life, not as an unending puzzle that existed into adulthood. And then I saw Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror dramedy Midsommarwhen it was releaseda year ago. I finally saw myself. And I’ve been thinking about the film ever since. The popular reading of Midsommar says it’s a scary, funny breakup movie A24 Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (left), is just the worst. Midsommar follows a young American woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) who travels to far northern Sweden to attend a midsummer festival with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his grad school dude colleagues. She’s not particularly welcome on the trip — the guys mostly invited her to join them because they felt bad for her after she suffered a family tragedy — and she feels increasingly disconnected from Christian. As members of the group (and a comparable group of Brits) begin to disappear, one by one, under mysterious circumstances, Dani finds herself more and more drawn to the society of the mysterious Harga people. By the end of the film, she has made her choice between the land of her birth and the new family she has found. She has also set her boyfriend on fire. One reason Midsommar works so well is that you can watch it and draw any number of different interpretations. It’s scary, but not particularly so. It’s funny, except when it’s deadly serious. It’s a fairy tale, except it’s also a harrowing depiction of grief and trauma. The film blends all of these tones together in a way that feels straight out of folklore. The cause-and-effect relationships between events in the movie feel suggested more than confirmed. The predominant read of Midsommar — one that Aster himself has more or less advanced — is that it’s a metaphorical depiction of a relationship in crisis entering a tailspin and plummeting to the ground below. Dani and Christian shouldn’t be together, and the story of the film tracks her slow realization of that fact and his slow realization of just how unhappy she is. When Midsommar begins, he’s a passive-aggressive jerk who can’t seem to break up with her but clearly wants to. When it ends, she’s finally free but at great personal cost. For a lot of people, Midsommar plays like a kind of weird romantic comedy — the perfect date night movie for a heterosexual couple longing to test the strength of their bond. The movie’s depiction of a broken relationship between two people who don’t yet realize their relationship is broken is extremely believable. It’s all but certain to provoke conversation about the strength of your own romantic relationship if you’re in one, the bad breakups lurking in your past, and the ways that codependency can curdle into abusive behavior. But none of those reasons are why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Midsommar for the past year. Midsommar captured my trans experience perfectly without trying to capture my trans experience A24 Finally Dani gets to be just one of the gals. The first time I saw Midsommar was an almost emotionally overwhelming experience. I laughed, I cried, I became so overcome by Bobby Krlic’s score in the film’s final moments that recalling it even now makes me mist up a little. Something at the film’s center hit me as hard as any movie ever has. At first, I assumed it was the way in which Aster has my number. His carefully composed, diorama-like shots are perfectly staged to make you wonder what’s lurking just off-screen, and his camera explores the village of the Harga with a detached precision when Dani first arrives. Its movement grows more fluid the longer she’s there, to indicate how much she’s begun to feel at home here at the ends of the Earth. I also tend to love stories that filter a genre idea through interpersonal drama, and the rupture between Dani and Christian was nothing if not interpersonal drama. Add the structure of a folk horror tale — wherein at least one person from modern society finds themselves lost in a bygone world where people still follow the old, pagan ways (usually involving human sacrifice) — and you have something potent and powerful. Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary was another favorite of mine (and another film that can sustain a trans reading, incidentally). But my reaction to Midsommar was deeper, more substantial. Figuring out why I reacted so strongly was figuring out why Midsommar rapidly went from being one of my favorite films of 2019 to one of my favorite films of all time. But reconsider the very premise of the film: Dani travels to Sweden with her boyfriend and his male friend group. She is an outsider, an interloper. They bring her along somewhat grudgingly, seemingly aware that Dani will only get in the way of them having a good time when they want to kick back and get high or ogle hot Harga girls. In other words, Dani is a buzzkill. There are plot reasons for her buzzkill status. Midsommar opens with her losing her entire family in a gruesome murder-suicide — but Aster shoots early scenes where she’s with the group of guys in such a way that she is removed from them, detached. (A notable early shot takes great pains to show her reflection in a mirror but not her physical presence, in the same room as Christian and his friends but not really.) The guys keep assuring Dani she’s fine, she’s part of their group, they’re excited to have her. But she can tell from their tone of voice how little they actually mean that. The filmmaking betrays their true feelings by isolating her. Thus, Midsommar is a movie about a woman who hangs out with a bunch of guys, never quite feeling welcome, or like any of them understand her. She’s always out of place, disconnected from what’s happening, even as they laugh and celebrate jovially around her. Cis women can certainly have this experience when hanging out with their boyfriends’ pals, but male group dynamics typically shift to avoid seeming too bro-y (for good or for ill) when they know a woman is present. For whatever reason, the guys Dani goes to Sweden with don’t shift their behavior in similar ways. What Dani goes through is almost a universal experience for trans women before they come out. They’re in the party but not of it, always feeling like there’s some joke they’re just not getting. What’s more, the moment Dani starts to find acceptance from others is when she finds herself spending time with the Harga women. After an entire movie of trying to make sense of Christian’s moods, she finds herself competing for the title of May Queen with the other women of the village. Her face shines with happiness and abandon, and when one of the other girls starts talking to her in Harga (a language invented for the film), Dani finds she can just naturally speak it. It’s an incredibly cathartic moment. She displays an ease she’s never felt before, and it carries through the rest of the movie, as she finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the Harga’s lifestyle and rituals. But Midsommar has quietly been building to this catharsis all along. Around the film’s midpoint, Dani bears witness to a particularly horrifying ritual, and where others who’ve traveled to visit the Harga object in terror, Dani stares dead ahead at what’s happening right in front of her, seemingly unfazed. On some level, she’s on the Harga’s wavelength. On some level, she belongs there. Folk horror is always about the inevitable clash between modernity and the ancient, pagan ways, but Aster layers atop that idea some gender commentary that feels particularly pointed. Dani can never find a way to connect with all of the men she’s joined on this trip to Sweden, but she can connect to the women she meets in a village on the other side of the planet. They just know each other, and in being known, Dani finally feels the rush of knowing what home is. I don’t mean to suggest that Midsommar is an intentional trans allegory. Aster has said that he views Dani as a bit of a proxy for himself within the film, which is interesting on a “guy tries to imagine what’s going on in a woman’s head” level (Aster is very good at doing this, where many male directors aren’t). But the movie has plenty to say about bad relationships and tribalism and depression and a whole host of other things. As with all truly great films, there’s so much going on inside of Midsommar that you could spend weeks and weeks discussing it with friends and unearth more takes with every new conversation. And yet ... when Dani discovered she could speak to the other women in the village, I felt, deep inside of me, the sensations I had felt the first few times the women I knew saw me and knew me for who I really was. I felt the way I now feel every week when I gather on Zoom with some of my best trans woman friends to talk about what’s going on in our lives. There is an immense power to being seen and to being known, a power that many cis people don’t even realize they have possessed since the moment of their birth. I still have many friends who are men, but now, I feel like I understand better how to relate to them. I no longer feel like there’s a secret language I cannot speak. To feel lost in your country of origin and stagger about looking for a home is to experience a deep emptiness at your very core. And then, one day, somebody speaks your name, and a whole secret world spreads out all around you. That world had been there all along, hiding. All it took were the right words, the right glance, the right knowledge to unlock its secrets. And once you’ve found them, you need never go back. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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