As More Young People Catch The Coronavirus, Striking A Social Balance Becomes Tougher
Across the country and North Carolina young people are testing positive for the coronavirus at a startling rate. The challenge for health officials is convincing young people that there’s a way to follow social distancing guidelines while still being social. But some young people are finding that balance is not as easy as it sounds.
Early afternoon on Friday, the patio outside Common Market in Plaza Midwood was nearly full. The store closed half its outdoor space, stacking up the long picnic tables and locking them with a chain. About 15 people were spread out at the small tables that were left. Not all of the tables were spaced six feet apart.
Joshua Moctezuma was enjoying ice cream with his sister, Elizabeth Casiano, who was visiting from Gastonia with her young kids. The two of them are in their late 20s. He’s less careful than she is when it comes to social distancing and wearing a mask.
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know," Moctezuma said. "I’ll wear it, to be honest, but just when it calls for it and just to get into places and stuff like that."
Casiano had a different approach.
“I’m still kinda getting used to social distancing and trying to understand it, and where I’m going and my surroundings," she said. "So, just you know, try to go out, but try to be mindful.”
Public health officials are focusing more on younger residents as coronavirus cases spike in North Carolina. As of July 7, North Carolina residents ages 25-49 make up 45% of the state's more than 75,000 cases. Those ages 18-24 make up 13%. In Mecklenburg County, residents 20-39 also make up about 45% of cases, and young people have consistently made up more than a third of the county's cases since late March.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen is telling young people to think about others when making decisions.
"We do need folks who are younger to understand not just the risks to themselves, but the risks to their friends, their family, and the rest of their community," Cohen said at a press briefing in late June.
Dr. Paula Keeton of UNC Charlotte’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center says the messaging to young people should be more targeted and emotional, reminding them that these guidelines are about helping other people.
"We’re a community, and a community needs to take of itself," Keeton said. "And that means we have to be attentive to social distancing and wearing masks and stuff, then that’s what we need to do to bring this forward as an act of solidarity -- that we’re going to get through this together, but we’re going to have to be uncomfortable for a bit to get through it."
Lili Perez is wrestling with both pieces of advice, trying to balance her friends and her family. She’s a 28-year-old nanny who lives in Charlotte with her parents. Her dad has asthma. Perez said she was really careful when the outbreak started: not leaving the house, taking a month off work and wiping down their groceries.
She slowly started seeing friends again over the next few months, social distancing most of the time. Some of her friends went out a lot more often. In mid-June, she hung out at a friend’s apartment with a few others, socially distanced but without masks. After that, she learned those friends had spent time with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. She called it a wake-up call.
"I was just feeling like a general idiot, for lack of a better word, because I have been so careful," Perez said. "And it felt kinda like the one time I did something I wasn’t supposed to do, even though I guess what we were doing was technically allowed, I just felt really guilty, and I was just like really afraid that I had potentially contracted something and I was gonna give it to my parents."
She hasn’t had any coronavirus symptoms, but she’s still navigating whether she can hang out with her friends and still protect her family. For the July 4 weekend, Perez was invited to a friend’s pool party. She knew she didn’t want to go but said others in her friend group said they would. It’s a reminder the social problems the pandemic brings aren’t going to end any time soon. And in the meantime, more situations like this will come up.
Perez doesn’t feel comfortable confronting her friends about which activities are safe and which aren’t.
"I think these occasions are going to come up more and more, where they’re all getting together and I’m not there," Perez said. "And it definitely is a thought that crosses my mind, where I’m like, 'Oh I hope this pandemic doesn’t end up costing me my friends.'"
Perez feared she might not be as close with her friends when the pandemic is over. Keeton says socializing is particularly important for young people because it helps them establish their identity.
"It’s a huge part of college-aged students’ identity development, to be in connection with others," Keeton said. "And the more it feels disconnected, I think the more desperate or unhappy, or even depressed some folks might get."
That feeling is exactly what Perez was struggling with. For her, socializing in person now meant figuring out what she can do while keeping safe. That’s more difficult when not everyone in her friend group agrees about what’s safe. Her friends are adults, she said, and they’ll make their own choices about what they’re willing to risk.
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