Back to ‘normal’ is elusive as COVID disruption subsides

Published 7:48 pm Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Though a few of us pride ourselves in isolation, humans are social beings and we need to be with other people. That need frequently manifests itself in our daily routines.

COVID has disrupted those routines in a way that was unimaginable a year ago.

Take the “coffee club,” for example. Variations exist across the country, but here, a local group gathered at a coffee shop nearly every weekday for well over a half century. A biscuit or English muffin, a few cups of coffee and regulars were ready for another day.

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For decades, it was the Twins diner on Main Street. Forty years ago, there would be close to two dozen farmers, businessmen and retirees greeting most every day with a trip to the Twins. They came in shifts, beginning at 6 a.m., and everyone was pretty much at work or elsewhere by 8:30. Then, a group of ladies took our places and stayed for another hour or two. It was one of Smithfield’s most enduring traditions.

When the Twins retired and closed the diner, we drifted from here to there, eventually settling on the Main Street Restaurant west of the bypass. The crowd had diminished by then and continued to do so.

Some moved away, finding jobs or retirement in other communities, but death did much of the thinning. In the end, only a few remained, but they persevered — until the COVID epidemic. What death had not done, the virus did, to that group and similar ones, I imagine, around the country.

Restaurants were forced to close for an extended period and, when they did reopen, many regulars, including me, felt uncomfortable lounging around in any public place, wondering who might cough or sneeze.

The great national self-quarantine period had begun and has continued until now. It hasn’t been absolute. Most of us have ventured out for groceries, drugs, doctors’ appointments when necessary and to pick up “takeout” dinners that we then eat at home. And if we went out at all, we generally tried to do so when crowds were the lightest.

Now that we are getting our vaccinations, we are beginning to feel just a little freer to associate with people, so we are slowly poking our heads out of our burrows, much like a groundhog that hibernated for the winter.

What we are finding when we do is a world that has changed in ways previously unimagined.

In fact, we approach getting back into society tentatively. When an old coffee shop regular called last week and suggested we go to breakfast, I said “sure,” but I had to put it on my calendar so I didn’t forget to show up since it’s no longer part of my routine, and when I walked into Main Street, I actually felt somewhat awkward after such a long absence.

I can’t remember the last time we went to the movies, and it will probably be a while yet, if there are any theaters left when this is over.

When we encounter old friends, elbow bumps have replaced handshakes and hugs are generally taboo. A very dear friend hugged me last week. We hadn’t seen each other in ages. We had both had our vaccination and were both wearing masks and yet, though it was wonderful to see her, I hesitated for just a second before we hugged.

The awkwardness and tentative nature of associations will begin to fade, I hope, when we finally feel comfortable unmasking, but COVID has permanently changed us. Despite ongoing efforts to turn it into yet more divisive politics, a majority of us have followed the scientific advice and have learned a great deal as we have threaded our way through this maze.

I remember thinking how strange it was just a couple of years ago to watch news video of people in mostly Asian countries walking to work wearing surgical masks. Boy, that would be weird, I thought back then. No longer.

In fact, we now know that this past winter’s precipitous decline in flu cases was partially due to the masks that conscientious people wore because of the pandemic. Those who don’t want to catch any number of bugs in the future may find it reasonable to don one whenever they feel vulnerable.

While the new knowledge has certainly been positive, the impact on other aspects of our lives has not. I don’t think we will ever view our social activities in quite the same way that we did a year ago. We have lost something. It’s difficult to define it and it will be difficult if not impossible to completely recover it.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is