Covid Comfort Report Card, October, 2023

Not long after the height of Covid, I found myself relatively suddenly untethered from the anchors that had stabilized my life for many years up to that point. Losing those anchors also untethered me from the city I lived in and pushed me out to find where I should live next. I chronically optimize my life, so there is no "default" option.

This has sent me on a months' long expedition. I've done some limited international traveling and a fair bit of traveling in the United States. I mask basically everywhere I go, and it's paid off: I've still never had Covid despite traveling tens of thousands of miles in just the last few months!

I've experienced both ends of the spectrum with regard to Covid comfort. I almost hesitate to call it a "spectrum" because it really comes down to communities being OK co-existing with Covid-conscious people and communities not being OK with it. There are some other factors that add shades of gray between, but the comfort or discomfort resulting from those is less palpable.

I'll be looking at some subjective factors like my own experiences existing in the city as well as more objective factors like vaccination rates. Let's do it!

Braga, Portugal

A pedestrian square in Braga, Portugal. It is a sunny day with blue skies. Two birds are flying off the left side of the photo. Mid-rise mixed use buildings line the right side of the photo. The square consist of a couple of raised beds of grass and rows of flowers — pink, orange, red, white, and purple. A pedestrian path runs down the middle of the beds and to the right, against the buildings. Trees are planted in the middle of the right portion of the walking path. Many people are walking and sitting around the square.

No one here was anything but nice to me. I never got a sideways glance and no one ever accosted me — at least, not in English! 😅

I don't have per-city vaccination data on Portugal, but 86.1% of the country is fully vaccinated making us in the US look like a bunch of bumbling buffoons.

Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago River lined with buildings on either side. The water is a greenish-blue with a maroon bridge crossing it and a boat that has just passed under the bridge, moving away from the camera. The sky is cloudy and overcast, with a bird flying just right of center. Two tall glass buildings are in the center of the photo in the distance.

Chicago is one of the friendliest US cities I've been to for the Covid-conscious. Masking is relatively common, especially on public transit. Lots of masking in the airport which is great to see.

70.9% of the city has received the initial vaccination series and 24.3% has received a bivalent booster. I wish this number were higher, but, as you'll see, this is pretty good for a US city.

Knoxville, Tennessee

A rendition of the Henley Street Bridge in Lego at a Lego convention in Knoxville, Tennessee

The South maintains its reputation of being friendly… as long as you're exactly like them. In this case, that means that you are anti-vax and certainly not masked. I was accosted no less than three times in a few weeks in Knoxville while masked. If you're wearing a mask here, even in a crowded public area, you'll very likely be the only one. Moving around in downtown, I would see a handful of people in a given week who were also masked.

Knoxville has a site for Covid vaccination data… but unless there's something wrong with my browser or internet connection, that site is literally empty. I see boxes with labels where data should be, yet those boxes have no numbers in them. I thought the site was just broken and maybe I could download Knoxville's data as a CSV, but, again, unless there's a weird problem on my end, this link produces a CSV with only column headers and no actual data.

A Tennessee Covid vaccination data page with several boxes for data… but all of the boxes are empty.

It's safe to assume this means the number is embarrassingly low — so low, in fact, Knoxville is willing to literally kill people by giving them insufficient information about whether or not they should visit in order to avoid sharing it. We can extrapolate from the CDC's data on Tennessee as a whole: only 56.4% have received the full series and an abysmal 10.6% have received a bivalent booster. Maybe not worth killing people over — that problem will take care of itself — but certainly worth getting embarrassed over.

So, if your path happens to intersect with Knoxville and assuming you value your life and your health, be prepared to mask up… and then to be harassed about it.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A photo of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. The sky is bright blue with wispy clouds. The lake water is blue green and dominates the right side of the picture, but there is a small peninsula jutting out into it, covered with grass and trees. On the left side of the photo, a walking path runs along the lakefront. Several people are walking and running on the path. In the distance on the left side of the photo, you can see the city skyline.

Milwaukee seemed generally accepting of masking. I was shouted at once out of a moving mini-van — a great way to be taken seriously when delivering medical advice. I didn't see many other people masking. Perhaps more than a town like Knoxville, but not by much. Comfort level in general was still much higher though.

Milwaukee's health department web site seems to be participating in a sort of alternative present ARG — think of it like an alternate history, except this is an agency that performs critical functions for its citizens pretending that right now is not actually the way it is. They seemed to post weekly news releases for a while. Those soon became bi-weekly. Then, at the end of last year, they stopped altogether releasing updates. The last one I can find is the December 9th, 2022 update which doesn't paint a very rosy picture. At that point, 54.2% of residents had completed their initial series and 10.4% their bivalent boosters. Sheesh!

Each of the updates links to a Covid data dashboard that is now a broken link, so those are probably the most current numbers we can get for the city. The state of Wisconsin's numbers are actually much better, so I'm not clear if we would be seeing better for Milwaukee if only they had kept reporting their numbers or if they're some kind of weird outlier — an urban anti-vax sort of inverted oasis, where instead of water it's nothing but scorpions.

At any rate, be sure to wear your mask here. You won't have much trouble except maybe for the occasional drive-by epidemiologist.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Like most places I visited, mask usage was sparse in Minneapolis. People were generally nice though despite the fact I was masked. I did have one incident though.

In a moment of weakness, I allowed myself to be convinced I should visit the Mall of America. I had debated whether I should see it and decided I'd be fine without it, seeing as how shopping malls are not places where I tend to thrive. After an encounter with a canvasser in front of Target, though, I decided I might as well see what it's like. Besides, I wasn't finding much to do in Minneapolis, so why not that?

I made my way through the mall. It was relatively uneventful. It was about like I thought it would be. I did think that, since it's the Mall of America, it would probably be packed to the brim with cool stores. Instead, it seems to be suffering like most malls, with lots of empty storefronts and stores that almost certainly couldn't have afforded the rent in the mall's heyday. Anti-vaxxers though can thrive in even the most downtrodden shopping mall.

The “Got Kilt?” storefront in the Mall of America in Minneapolis. A cardboard standup of a kilt-wearing man greets you at the entrance. Through the glass, you can see some Funkopops, several items of clothing, and a few plushies.

I was walking through the mall, masked, minding my own business, when a man called out to me, "nice mask." I felt the corners of my mouth turned up. "A compliment! How nice," I though to myself, but this was a Trojan horse. Now that my guard was down, the guy dropped his bomb: "THE PANDEMIC IS OVER, YA KNOW!" It's the last time I ever drop my guard and expose my soft underbelly to a man wearing a camo t-shirt and a baseball cap to cover up a "business in the front" haircut while leaving his luscious "party in the back" exposed.

Minneapolis doesn't, as far as I can tell, expose its own vaccination numbers, but Minnesota does still expose vaccination numbers divided by county. Either what they expose and the way they expose it is really weird, or their numbers are the worst in a country that is already bad. The only number they give me is the number of people who are "up to date." That number is 11,314. For the whole state. Or 0.2%.

I assume "up to date" means you've had all of the doses, including the one that came out a couple of weeks ago. That would make this number make some sense. I can't compare apples to apples though since, best I can tell, no one else on my list so far is sharing this number, and Minnesota isn't sharing anything but this.

If I had to guess, I'd say we're hovering around the 55% mark with some of the others, based on the similar level of mask usage I saw when I was here. That means you should probably wear yours.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

A gray stone cathedral in Montreal, Quebec. Several people are walking in a pedestrian square in the foreground of the frame. Cars drive past the cathedral, just beyond the square. One of the cathedral's two towers (the one on the right side of the frame) has scaffolding built up on it. The sky is mostly overcast, but the light of the sun illuminates through the clouds behind that same tower.

Montreal was lovely and everyone there was lovely to me. No one blinked twice at my mask, and if they delivered any Minneapolis-style sick burns, they were in a language I did not understand.

Montreal seems to have had their own vaccination page with rate data once upon a time. When I try to go to that page now, it shows me an error that makes it look like I've broken the law. Quebec does still share vaccination data, but the percentages are bucketed either by age group or by priority group. I can't find an overall percentage of the population who have received their initial series, and downloading the CSV data for these charts does not do what you think it does. Since I don't know what proportion of the population belongs to each of the groups, I don't think I have a good way to work backwards into the overall number. That is, if I know anything about math. (Narrator: He doesn't.)

What I can see though is that the adult age grouping that surely represents a large majority of Quebec's adults — 18-59 years old — is sitting at 52.4%. Now, this goes well beyond the city of Montreal, but I would have expected quite a bit more from Quebec. Note to cities: if you don't want your numbers being made to look bad because of the rural areas around you, publish your own numbers!

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Looking down Elfreth's Alley, a historic street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The sky is bright blue with wispy clouds. The center of the street is cobblestones, and to either side of the stones, the street is brick. The cobbled section is lined with red bollards. The street is narrow and lined with early American homes on either side. The homes are all red brick, some with off-white (yellow-ish) wooden trim. The first home on the left has a green door and a bicentennial flag on a pole.

No one has ever said anything to me or treated me differently in Philadelphia because I was wearing a mask. In fact, I've had quite a few lovely interactions while masked. Lots of people are still masking in the city, especially on public transit. I didn't notice quite the same levels of masking at the airport as I did at O'Hare, but it's still a very comfortable place to be Covid-conscious, at least on this "feel" metric. Let's see how it compares on the more metric-y metrics.

Philadelphia makes its own vaccination numbers available through their OpenDataPhilly site. Way to go, Philly! They don't give me any handy dashboards or show me nice percentages… but I can figure those out for myself with what they do provide.

I was thrilled to see that the data was current as of yesterday, which means not only do they provide them, but they are still taking this thing seriously. 1,294,969 in Philly are fully vaccinated, which I take to mean they have received their initial series. Philly's population numbers are well behind the vaccine data's October 16th, 2023 freshness date, so I'll have to do what I can to get a percentage. The census estimates Philly's 2022 population at 1,567,258. That would give us a vaccination percentage of 82.6%, which, if accurate, would be spectacular! Philly population seems to have been in decline since the start of the pandemic, so I would guess, if anything, the population might be a little lower. That said, I have no business to be making guesses about this. A coin flip would be nearly as effective.

Sadly, I don't see any data about uptake of the bivalent booster. Unless Philadelphians had a major change of heart, we can assume it would be similarly high.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

A panorama of the former Pittsburgh Glass Company. In the center is a square with small trees in planters. All around are castle-like buildings made entirely of glass. The sky is partly cloudy and blue and is reflected in the buildings. A street lies in the foreground, with an armored vehicle to the left and some cars on the right. People are walking around and enjoying the square.

By the time I got to Pittsburgh, I was on a bit of a hair trigger after having been harassed for masking in so many American cities. My head was on a bit of a swivel. I was out one evening getting bubble tea, and a frat bro shouted at me out of a car. Aside from that, people were very nice. My experience was colored more by the accrued psychic damage from months of harassment up to that point than it was by Pittsburgh itself.

Pittsburgh outsources its health data responsibilities to the county… so they'll have to suffer for Allegheny County's sins too. (I could filter this down by locality, but I think the city encompasses multiple localities and I'm not sure which they are. Also, that's hard whereas not doing that is easy!😅) For some reason, I can't find data on the original series which I would like to have to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Instead, here I get only data on the bivalent booster. County citizens have taken it at a rate of 21.3%, which you can see is much better than many other cities/states on the list. It's safe to assume Pittsburghers are vaccinated at a higher rate than many others as well, but how much higher is anyone's guess.

Portland, Oregon

Multi-colored houses near downtown Portland, Oregon. The photo looks down a sidewalk. On the left, a few cars are parked on the street. On the right, you see three brightly colored Victorian houses, each a unique mix of various shades of blue, pink, red, green, purple, and yellow. The sky is blue, and the sun shines brightly from behind one of the houses.

I always felt comfortable masking in Portland. It seems people mask at a higher rate than in other cities — comparable to Chicago and Seattle. I can't recall ever being harassed about it.

Portland does not, best I can tell, publish its own data, but the Oregon Health Authority maintains a nice dashboard of vaccination data, updating it monthly… although not all data is updated that frequently. I downloaded their all-ages CSV and ran the numbers myself for Multnomah County. As of April 10th, 2023, Multnomah County had received their initial series at a rate of 79.5%. That's pretty great. Not as great as Philly, but remember also, this is the whole County, not just the city of Portland (and it's amazing how quickly attitudes about all sorts of things, including vaccines, change as you get outside the city). Their bivalent booster rate is equally impressive at 30.8%. Nice going, Portland!

Porto, Portugal

A cloudy day in Porto showing a street in the touristy part of town. The ground is wet, and a couple walks toward the camera carrying folded umbrellas. On the right of the frame, we see outdoor seating for a couple of restaurants. on the left, buildings each about seven stories high. The ground level has a series of arches. Further down, the street is lined on both sides by buildings of a similar height, and the street begins to curve left and go up a hill. A dozen or so people are walking the streets and surrounding areas in the shot.

I don't have much to say about Porto that I didn't already say about Braga. People were kind and no one hassled me during my time here.

Salt Lake City, Utah

A sea of concrete running through downtown Salt Lake City: this shot is taken from a center of a six-lane plus turning lane monstrosity gouging through the center of downtown Salt Lake City. You can see the traffic lights faced to the lane carrying traffic going away from the camera. The pole holds four signals, all red. There are very few cars in the frame. Further in the distance, you can see some highrise buildings. On the left, a glass building with some yellow accents. On the right, a building currently under construction along with an orange construction crane.

Salt Lake City wasn't my favorite place to be — their downtown is made up primarily of endless criss-crossing highways — but I wasn't accosted a single time about my mask. I even got a haircut here while masked, and the barber was very friendly. I was here for a conference, and the conference required masking which was awesome! That led to SLC being one of my most comfortable places, along with Philly, Chicago, Portland, Seattle… and anywhere that isn't the US. 😅

Salt Lake County has a promising-looking Covid data dashboard, but it ends up falling a bit short. It tells me that 13.4% are "up-to-date," which they define as having had the primary series plus bivalent booster. If we compare this to other bivalent numbers, it's certainly not the worst, but it's not great either. They direct me to Utah's IBIS data explorer where I learn that 822,714 people have had their "complete" Covid vaccination. (I take this to refer to the initial series, although "complete" is an odd word to use with this still-evolving virus.) The census estimates the county's population at 1,186,257, which puts the county at 69% — not quite enough to evoke a "nice," even though we've seen much worse. These numbers are current as of October 19th, 2023.

Seattle, Washington

The most nineties car you have ever seen, parked on a street in Seattle, Washington. It is a Subaru, Baja — a car with a truck bed. The car is painted teal, pink, grey, red, and yellow. It is apparently a delivery car for a restaurant called Un Bien Caribbean and Latin Food.

I love Seattle. I've spent a lot of time here, and I've never felt uncomfortable masking. Masking is still relatively common, and I know from my time living there that vaccination rates are sky-high… but let's see exactly how sky-high they are.

As with most of these cities, we're going to be getting our data from the county — King County in the case of Seattle. As of October 1st, 2023, 85% of King County has received the initial series and 33.2% have received the bivalent booster. 😮 I mean, if I'm being honest, it still feels low to me, but compared to the competition, it's an incredible rate. The entire county here has bested the vaccination rate of the city of Philadelphia, which itself is 12 percentage points higher than the nearest US competitor on our list. That's quite an accomplishment. To beat it, you need to go to Portugal where the entire country's rate beats it.

Comparison Table

Let's take a look at all the numbers we have:

City Initial Series Rate Bivalent Booster Rate
Braga, Portugal 86.1% (Portugal) 🤩 ?
Chicago, Illinois 70.9% 24.3%
Knoxville, Tennessee 56.4% (Tennessee) 10.6% (Tennessee)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 54.2% 10.4%
Minneapolis, Minnesota ? ?
Montreal, Quebec 52.4% (Quebec) ?
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 82.6% ?
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ? 21.3%
Portland, Oregon 79.5% (Multnomah County) 30.8% (Multnomah County)
Porto, Portugal 86.1% (Portugal) 🤩 ?
Salt Lake City, Utah 69% (Salt Lake County) 13.4% (Salt Lake County)
Seattle, Washington 85% (King County) 🇺🇸 33.2% (King County) 🤩

I visited only three countries, but among those, Portugal is the clear winner, especially when you compare them against other countries. The US overall rate of vaccination with the initial series is 69.5% — again, not so nice.

Inside the US, though, you can be around people who care enough to protect themselves and to protect you. You'll be relatively safe in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Portland, with Chicago not terribly far behind.