Why Am I Not More Excited That Philadelphia Is Finally Reopening?

The city's full-throttle charge into normalcy felt good at first, but now I'm feeling something unexpected: survivor's guilt.

As the pandemic subsides and Philadelphia continues reopening, some are experiencing survivor’s guilt. Photo by Frederick Bass via Getty Images

June was supposed to be the month when everything changed. I was looking forward a red-carpet kickoff to Hot Vax Summer, one filled with maskless beaches and less stress. It’s Pride Month, Juneteenth is coming, and with the city reopening earlier than expected, everything was supposed to be coming up roses. And indeed, over the weekend, I was all over the city, attending drag high teas, doing happy hour at one of my favorite distilleries, and embracing the closest thing we’ve had to normalcy since the pandemic started. At first, all of this felt like just what we all needed: more sun, more booze, more memories. But as I ventured back into the city with a more robust crowd of Philadelphians, it just hit differently. I started to realize that as restrictions decreased, so did the level of care from others, bringing about the return of pre-pandemic antics. Philly has always been a town known for its incessant pettiness, brash rowdiness, and unexpected damages, and that’s all come rushing back.

Hearing tales of the initial hot mess of the Philadelphia Flower Show (such as the rip-off that is charging $15 for “grilled veggie hoagies“) and sport cars crashing in broad daylight in Center City felt like an over-the-top kickoff to our reopening. Obnoxiously long lines outside food spots in Northern Liberties. Bratty yuppies relearning how to bike in my Cedar Park neighborhood. Patrons being rude to service workers in Center City. Feeling dread as people mindlessly TikTok’d and Instagrammed about dumb stuff in public — it all annoyed me.

Had we not learned anything? Did everyone forget that we’re phasing out of one of the biggest public-health crises ever? Does returning to normal mean forgetting how we got here in the first place? I was beginning to experience something I hadn’t felt in years: survivor’s guilt.

When I left my big public high school in Houston to attend Penn, I struggled with the knowledge that my life was going to be radically different than those of many of the classmates and mentors I was leaving behind. Over the years, I’d learn of the untimely passing or incarceration of some of the guys I once considered friends, and it made me question my privilege in escaping that world. “What made me lucky?” I would often ponder during celebratory moments. “Why me?”

I had similar feelings as I saw flocks of people treating the return to restaurants and social venues as merely expected rather than some great gift. Seeing people debate on social media about which businesses have lost their luster since reopening made me miss the days when we were all rooting for them to simply survive. It made me miss how Philly felt more like a community when we were socially distanced — how charity and goodwill seemed to be default pandemic mode. We’ve all been through a collective hardship, and yet the sense of community that hardship fostered seems to have vanished. Where is the love, Philly?

It makes me wonder if people are actually taking a moment to remember just how many lives are no longer with us. Hundreds upon thousands of Americans have died during this pandemic — and many continue to — but I’m just supposed to go on with business as usual? I still think about families like mine that are forever impacted, the businesses that are never coming back, and the precious moments that are forever altered. While it’s fair to note that everyone processes these issues differently, we can all at least acknowledge that our way of life has changed.

People are ecstatic to go back outside (as they should be), but perhaps it’s important for all of us to check ourselves and check in with others along the way. In my personal life, I’m beginning to realize that not everyone close to me is venturing out yet — some because they’re scared of COVID-19, but others because they aren’t emotionally ready. As a journalist and social butterfly, I adapt easily to changing environments. But I can now empathize with others who aren’t ready to attend social gatherings where they might hear others discuss those they’ve lost or feel obligated to share their own stories of job loss or hardship. This summer’s reopening will be a defining moment for all of us as we begin to go back out — but it’s also a reminder to consider boundaries, prioritize self-care, and consider how your individual actions impact others.

After several months of tiptoeing into town during the city’s various restriction lifts, I had this sudden epiphany when I least expected it. I’m reminding myself that I need to say “no” sometimes and that my emotions, even when unexpected, are valid. As this pandemic begins to fade, we don’t need to let go of the things that grounded us during those difficult times. Reflecting on that discomfort and learning not to further it in our current efforts to rebuild will be just as essential to our survival as the service workers who are still worthy of our respect and dignity during this time.