As spring moves along, a six-letter word is at the forefront of many minds. That word is “normal.” And some people can hardly wait to get back to it (aka the way we lived before the pandemic).
Others, like Lombard, Illinois, resident Valerie Antunes Koch, are anxious about returning to normal life too soon. Antunes Koch, a behavior intervention specialist with the School Association for Special Education in DuPage County, was preparing to go back to work in person this week after working remotely this school year.
Though she is fully vaccinated, her husband isn’t. She has eaten in restaurants recently with others who are vaccinated, but she doesn’t go into crowds, and she practices social distancing and continues to wear masks.
“We’re still in a pandemic; not everyone is vaccinated. Not all students can wear masks, are wearing masks, wearing their masks correctly,” Antunes Koch said.
She also expects routines to be disrupted as students return to classrooms, caseloads change and schedules are altered.
“I understand that everyone’s tired and frustrated, and parents have gone through a lot over this last year, but so have educators,” she said.
Illinois will move to phase 5 of the reopening, ending indoor and outdoor capacity limits, when 50% of residents age 16 and older have been vaccinated, and stable or declining COVID-19 metrics are recorded during a 28-day monitoring period. Until that happens, some people are experiencing FOGO — fear of going out.
Mia Rusev, a case therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and a licensed clinical social worker, says the reopening is going to be a time of transition and adjustment.
“People got accustomed to smaller crowds, less noise and more intimate settings, and they’ll have to be patient with themselves with reentry. So if you’re going into a crowded place, it might be overwhelming,” she said. “Take it slow, and give yourself permission that you’re adjusting again. It’s normal to have to take some time.”
According to Rusev, a certain amount of anxiety is normal, but if that anxiety prevents you from engaging with the outside world despite what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is safe, then that could be isolating behavior and should be checked out.
Donna Henrici, an Elgin resident, said she went to a Target store for the first time in a year after doing pickup since the pandemic began. A self-proclaimed “hugger” and part of a very social couple, Henrici said she doesn’t feel sad that she can’t be as social as she used to be. The former endoscopy procedure technician said she’s anxious about just throwing the doors open and doing everything they used to, like going to concerts, movies and the theater.
“A lot of it is just the sheer unknowns that are still out there,” she said. “I’ve eaten out three times in the last year. The idea of being in a crowded restaurant right now is absolutely not on my radar. I don’t feel like I’m ready.”
Henrici thinks a lot of people are in such a rush to get back to doing normal things, like attending sporting events, that they’re ignoring the surge in COVID-19 cases.
“We’re all so tired,” Antunes Kock said. “When this started, we thought it’d be two weeks, and we’d be done. And it’s not.”
She said people need to make choices they’re comfortable with, but added, “I hope those decisions are thoughtful and responsible and take into consideration the more we interact with each other, the more likely we will have community spread, and the longer this thing will stick and keep going.”
As Illinois moves to full reopening, Rusev says people should prioritize their relationships and activities and do things on a smaller scale. It’s more like dipping your toe into the water versus diving right in.
“I think that’s a smart way to explain it,” she said. “That way you can see how you’re feeling, get more comfortable with the people that you’re close to, that you haven’t been seeing in a while, then go out from there in circles. If you’re unable to join in regular activities because you’re just too scared, too nervous, too anxious about joining in, and can’t get out of the house, you should probably talk to somebody and get some help. You don’t want to avoid your life because of your anxiety.”
Henrici said she and her husband will get back to normal a little at a time.
“We’re waiting for numbers to get down and stay there,” she said. “Not surge up every time there’s a holiday or sports startup or whatever the case may be. We’ve made it this long, why would we put everything at risk now?”
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