Photo: Matthew Meltzer

What I Learned From a Saturday Night Out in Reopened America

by Matthew Meltzer May 14, 2020

On Saturday, I took a vacation back to the real world. You remember that place, where we walked down crowded streets on a Saturday night, ate at crowded restaurants, and cruised in bumper-to-bumper traffic down the main drag? A place where we only wore masks if it was Halloween or Mardi Gras, and the only fear we had was the fear of missing out.

It wasn’t some far-off fantasy I had while laying on my couch during day 62 of quarantine, nor did I jump in a souped-up Delorean and ride a hoverboard into 2015. It was just Saturday night in Naples, Florida, one of the many cities in the Sunshine State that opened its businesses and beaches last week in an attempt to get back to the way things were.

And if Naples was any indication, many of the things we’ve read about the future of restaurants, socializing, travel, and everything else are over-estimating the demand for change. Because what many of those commentators vastly discount is the collective human desire to return to the life we know, risks or not. It would seem, so far, that the majority of people aren’t going to base decisions on potential exposure, and that businesses won’t need to adapt all that much to make customers happy, even if there are government mandates. And whether you think this is great news or a terrifying revelation, most Americans’ main priority seems to be getting right back to the world we knew.

It’ll take roughly 10 minutes to feel like none of this ever happened.

At first, walking down South Fifth Avenue — effectively Naples’ Main Street — was a little surreal. People walked four or five across, restaurants had customers sitting outside, retail shops were open, and police were directing the street-clogging traffic. It all seemed strangely foreign but still comfortingly familiar, kind of like going back to your parents’ house after your first semester of college.

But in about 10 minutes, none of it seemed the least bit odd. As soon as the novelty of seeing hundreds of other people wore off it felt like… Saturday night. Fear dissipates pretty quickly when you’re back in the real world, and when everyone around you seems fearless too, that collective feeling of safety puts us all at ease. And as I sat eating a plate of overpriced pad thai, it seemed the last two months had been some sort of weird dream, and life was carrying on like nothing ever happened.

People are not scared to be in large crowds.

One friend asked me if I felt safe when she saw me posting pictures of the busy streets on Instagram. And for some segment of the population, I suppose there will be lingering worry about being in crowds. But if Naples was any indication, that segment is a vocal minority. Which means, barring regulation, things like bar partitions and restaurant bubbles will act as stronger deterrents to business than keeping everything free and clear.

We could also extrapolate that to other things — hotels, airplanes, sports stadiums. People seem to be more concerned with the quality of the experience than with being too close to crowds. And if businesses want to be profitable, they’ll likely weigh the customers they’ll lose by diminishing the experience versus those they’ll lose to potential exposure.

Even with regulations, restaurants are going to seat as many people as they can.

Florida, technically, allowed restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity. And though Florida has never been the best state at counting, not one restaurant limited itself to a quarter the number of people it could hold. Nearly every restaurant along Fifth Avenue was full, and the only thing stopping people from going inside were the prices on the menus.

You can get upset with restaurants for disregarding the regulation, but think about it: Imagine you had literally no income over the past two months and were all of the sudden allowed to make as much as you could until someone told you to stop. It’s called desperation, and it’s where a lot of people are right now. Though I didn’t talk to any restaurateurs on the record, the collective attitude seemed to be “do it until you’re told not to.” And nobody was telling them not to.

Police are not going to enforce social distancing.

Police were out in force Saturday night in Naples, but they were busy enforcing the laws they usually enforce — directing traffic, telling cars to turn their music down, yelling at jaywalkers. Remember, this is Naples, not New York City.

What they were not doing was forcing people six feet apart or telling people to wear masks. They were not walking into restaurants and handing out fines for seating too many people. Naples is relatively small, too. So you might imagine the priority social distancing will have in large cities where police are already stretched thin.

Masks are not going to be part of our daily lives for long.

I could count on one hand the number of people I saw wearing masks on Saturday night, aside from restaurant staff. They didn’t look like oddballs, per se, but in our collective desire to get back to normal, the hassle of wearing a face covering on a humid Florida night just wasn’t happening for most people. Like putting our laptops away when the flight attendant comes by, wearing masks will be a rule we only follow when someone in authority tells us we have to, and will immediately stop following as soon as they’re not looking.

For their part, restaurant servers wore masks. Until they started to hinder their job. So after my waiter had to repeat a special to me twice because I couldn’t understand him, he pulled his mask down and explained so I could hear. Gloves were also commonplace among restaurant staff, but as soon as people figure out there’s not much difference between a server who wears the same gloves all night and one who washes their bare hands, my guess is those will go by the wayside soon too.

Like it or not, Florida’s not the only place speeding back to normal.

Some may roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, but that’s FLORIDA! Aren’t you the same people who walk alligators down the street and misspell your face tattoos?” Yes, we do have our share of less-than-Rhodes-scholars down here. But look no further than the parks of New York City or the beaches of Los Angeles to see that we’re far from the only people who are ready to go out, en masse, right now. Surveys show people can’t wait to travel again. Cruise bookings are way up. We’ll be back a lot sooner than people think.

This isn’t to say there won’t be lasting effects from COVID-19. The tattered economy and massive government debt are still there. Many have lost loved ones, or jobs, or businesses, and those lives will still be considerably different once this two-month cloud has lifted. And for the responsible folk who choose to wear masks and avoid crowds moving forward, their lives won’t look the same either. It’s worth noting that Naples closed its beaches the next day after all of South Florida showed up. But in terms of how we dine out, drink, socialize, and walk down the street, not much will look that different.

You may see this as a horrifying commentary on America’s blatant disregard for COVID-19. Or you may find it an encouraging sign that our world is not as permanently altered as we may have thought. Either way, much like how you might have felt about the world shutting down, it ultimately doesn’t matter. This is what’s happening on the streets of Naples, and soon every city in America. And whether we’re better or worse for it is anyone’s guess.

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