Why Angelenos are still gathering as COVID cases rise

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Maya Shternberg and Mayan Benhamo enjoy an outdoor picnic, six feet apart. Photo by Caleigh Wells

On a July afternoon at Balboa Park in the San Fernando Valley, some 100 mostly-masked Angelenos are fishing, playing, and picnicking. They’re mostly in small groups, staying far apart from each other.

Valley Torah High School seniors Maya Shternberg and Mayan Benhamo are having their first in-person social interaction in months. They drove to the park separately to sit on opposite sides of a picnic blanket. Their masks are put away only while they’re eating, and they’re six feet apart.

“We’ve obviously been stuck at home since March, and both of us haven’t been going out seeing friends, and we’re kind of losing our minds at home,” says Benhamo.

However, Governor Gavin Newsom has banned all social gatherings with non-household members. Coronavirus cases are climbing.

USC Psychology Professor Daphna Oyserman says physical distancing was easiest when everyone was staying home. But as more people begin to push boundaries, the temptation gets stronger.

“It begins to feel more difficult as you actually get more freedom to locomote. And over time, anything with repetition can begin to feel difficult,” she says. “And people often use language like, ‘I’m so over it.’”


USC Psychology Professor Daphna Oyserman says conflicting information and uncertainty make it more tempting for people to socialize and risk infection. Photo courtesy of Daphna Oyserman.

Part of the problem is the way we’re talking about it. She says coming to terms with “physical distancing” wouldn’t be as bad as “social isolation.”

Fernando Castillo says he never really closed his social circle. Throughout the pandemic, he’s been going to friends’ houses to hang out or watch a movie without a mask. Four months in, he feels the fatigue too, even as numbers keep getting worse.

“California has the record for the most cases in a day or whatever. And at this point, I’m so desensitized to it all,” he says. “There’s [sic] new cases every day, yada yada yada., But y’know, we’ll see how bad things can really get.”


Fernando Castillo says he is doing the best he can to stay safe, but still needs to socialize. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

Castillo says he’s confused by conflicting messages from federal and local governments, as well as ever-changing recommendations from health officials. He says he’s had to decide for himself what is safe.

Oyserman says when there’s uncertainty, people are less likely to plan for the future.

“Because no one is ever saying that you have 100% risk of fatal disease or 100% risk of even contracting it. They're saying your odds go up. Well odds are difficult for people to understand,” he says.

Even as many people are out there socializing, either for the first time now or throughout the pandemic, there are still plenty who feel “safer at home.”

Justin Peniston hasn’t seen anyone in-person except his wife since he stopped working as a bartender in March.

“The thing that has made it tempting to me to go out and be social is when I’m driving and I see people clearly living life normally, not wearing masks ... working out in the gym. That makes me think maybe I’m the crazy one,” he says.

But his wife has underlying health conditions, so even after he stopped working at the bar, they slept separately for two weeks, just in case.

Now he keeps up with friends over the phone or during a weekly Dungeons and Dragons session. He says that’s better than trying to get together in person anyway.


Justin Peniston socializes through weekly Dungeons and Dragons sessions over Zoom. Photo courtesy of Justin Peniston.

“There has been a temptation to have a socially distant gathering. … But for myself, I am a naturally social person, and I love my friends, and I’m a hugger and a shaker of hands and a tactile person. And it would feel weirder to me to be removed physically from my friends when we’re together than it is simply to have a conversation over the phone,” he says.

Peniston won’t socialize with friends in-person until there is a vaccine. Experts estimate that’s probably not happening until 2021, and even that would be record speed. 

Until then, he and his wife have found joy driving along the Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down and the radio blasting, watching other people enjoy the outdoors.