Rose, a 22-year-old teacher from Albuquerque, NM, would like to be clear: She doesn’t actually intend to lick sidewalks now that she’s vaccinated. She’s only thought about it. Can you blame her? As she points out, compared to the Before Times, the world is much more sterile now, what with the constant hand-washing, sanitizing, and masking. It makes a certain kind of sense that there’s a part of Rose — and lots of other people — that wish to return to the grossness of yore: Sharing a drink with friends, accidentally getting a whiff of a coworker’s bad breath, feeling the warmth radiating from a person standing a little too close. It’s this part of Rose that considers licking sidewalks.
“I want to be able to do what I used to be able to do before the pandemic,” Rose says. “Which, in hindsight, was kind of gross.”
After a year dominated by health guidelines and safety precautions, the Covid-19 vaccination campaign exemplifies long-awaited progress. Over half of the adult population in the U.S. has received at least one shot, and a hearty dose of post-pandemic potential. Consistently easing restrictions — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with other vaccinated people, travel domestically without testing or quarantining, and ditch their masks outdoors — imbues confidence at having triumphed over the virus. As a horny post-vax summer looms, many aspire to use their mouths to greet friends and strangers both in celebration and victory. And for some, the ultimate sendoff to Covid-19’s rule is to defy reasonable sanitary norms and ironically declare their intentions to lick high-touch and well-trafficked surfaces like sidewalks, doorknobs, parking meters, subway poles, and movie theater floors.
From the earliest days of the pandemic — thanks to an oft-cited study that showed SARS-CoV-2 could survive on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days — the public and health experts alike believed the virus was spread on surfaces. As a result, the world sanitized their hands and everything that came in touch with them, like mail and groceries. In direct conflict with the sterile pandemic world (and overall sanitary measures), rogue rule-defiers weaponized licking by tainting grocery produce and convenience store stock with their spit. Although it’s since been shown that Covid-19 is primarily spread through aerosol droplets and not through surfaces, a celebratory post-vax lick brings the spit saga full circle — only this time it isn’t Covid-deniers who want to partake, but those who embrace science.
Fiona Taylor’s post-vax fantasy is licking a Whac-A-Mole mallet at Chuck E. Cheese with abandon. Throughout the pandemic, Taylor, a New York City-based content director, took every precaution, from wiping down her groceries to sanitizing her hands till they were raw. Still, she and her daughter caught Covid-19. (Her husband managed to avoid the virus.) “I think that’s where the joke stems from,” Taylor, 51, says. “I just want to have this sense of freedom to go to the grossest place on earth and lick stuff.”
Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University, explains that the public pronouncement of licking signifies purposeful risk-taking behavior (even if no one ever follows through). Although licking dirty surfaces carries the same level of risk as it did pre-pandemic, a recently vaccinated person may feel suddenly invincible and unshackled from restrictions. Ingesting the world around us is the most extreme way of flouting safety measures and testing this newfound immunity. “It’s like, ‘I’m not afraid of you, you little beast,’” Farley says.
Emboldened by their newfound immunity, people may feel inspired to push the limits of such protection. “What’s more all-in than licking something?” says psychologist Ryan Howes. “The most vulnerable and intimate thing you can do with a person or with an object to ingest them through licking.” Literally consuming and savoring our surroundings through a lick could be seen as the primal reclaiming of the world.
Just as athletes and creatives may kiss newly acquired awards and trophies, Farley speculates licking traditionally vile surfaces can symbolize an accomplishment, this time over a global pandemic. Where the trophy is a physical representation of the hours of preparation and labor required to earn the prize, licking a floor, doorknob, or park bench may be an equally celebratory way to mark the effort of overcoming the pandemic. The kiss (or lick) is the proud display of triumph over hardship, Farley says.
Joking about licking surfaces that society has deemed contaminated is to rebel against human instincts, says psychologist Carla Marie Manly. Disgust — like fear, anger, sadness, and joy — serves a biological and emotional purpose, namely alerting us to avoid a potential threat, such as viruses. Purposely making plans to ingest germs can be freeing, a means of asserting control over one’s body. “It is a part about taking back your personal power and being able to say to yourself and others, I am in control now,” Manly says. “If I choose to engage in this ridiculous behavior, I am choosing that.” So long as this desire to rebel is intentional, she says, it’s healthy and cathartic to envision acting out in this way since it can serve as wish fulfillment.
Aoife Mitchell, a 21-year-old living in Dublin, will consider the pandemic as being over the moment she feels confident and safe enough to lick a store floor. Having lived through the world’s longest lockdown — Ireland is easing out of stay-at-home orders under effect since late last year — Mitchell has observed her peers using overzealous hyperbole to describe post-lockdown life. “All my girlfriends [are] like, ‘I’m going to get with every guy at the club,’” she says. Though she acknowledges the absurdity in wanting to lick a floor, these bizarre jokes may help the re-emerging public avoid fearing the world outside their windows. “Obviously people’s reactions to coming out of lockdown are going to be so different, but I think you have to not pathologize these things,” Mitchell says, “because how else are we supposed to recover as a society if everyone’s going to be so scared all the time?”
Of course, the absurdity of the joke itself is part of its appeal. Oklahoma City college student Zachary James, 20, has made multiple outlandish vaccine quips, from saying the shot made his arm fall off to tweeting about testing his immunity by licking a stop sign. The meme-ification of witty remarks about lapping surfaces post-vax “is part and parcel of a facet of the social media culture, especially on Twitter,” says Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College. “Outrageous comments on social media get attention and comments, so there is competition for more outlandish comments.”
Because licking is often one of the most intimate acts — and the most extreme in the age of contagion — it’s prime joke fodder. And after a year of pain and loss, who wouldn’t want to be a little silly online?
“It’s been such a tough year,” Taylor says. “I think we all have to laugh in solidarity.” And maybe, also, lick.