Navigating the Pandemic’s Murky New Phase in Columbus
An anxious writer explores a moment of hope, uncertainty and dread.
I close my eyes, it almost seems like a normal baseball game. I’m crammed into my hard green seat in Huntington Park, plastic beer cup in hand, flanked by my husband and son. All of the sensory-stimulating elements of Columbus Clippers baseball, those things I’d missed so dearly over the canceled 2020 season, are here: the crack of the bat, the thwap of a fastball gliding at 97 miles an hour into a catcher’s mitt, the ritualistic singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the announcer’s soothing voice introducing players as they step up to bat. But something is off.
The crowd isn’t noisy enough. There are no between-inning putting challenges on top of the home team dugout or tire-rolling relay races in left field. Crash and Lou Seal aren’t swashbuckling through the seats, teasing adults and hugging giggling children in equal measure.
Clippers baseball is back. But is it really?
It’s early May, and I’m sitting in my family’s usual spot, in Section 8, behind the home team dugout. The Clippers have opened their gates to fans for the first time since September 2019 after the coronavirus pandemic canceled the entire 2020 season. It is a refreshing moment for me, and I’m sure for many other folks who have a hard time dealing with baseball’s regular offseason, let alone an extended one.
But it isn’t the baseball we’re accustomed to watching. During early-season games, the 10,000-seat ballpark hosts between 2,500 and 3,500 fans to accommodate the mandatory spacing required between “pods” in all seating areas. Fans sit and cheer for the hometown team behind masks, which must be worn at all times unless you are actively eating or drinking. There is no first pitch thrown out by a nervous Columbus mini-celebrity, no presentation of the colors by local scout troops, no hot dog race. And in what may be the most bizarre change, instead of the quirky giveaways that are a hallmark of minor league baseball, the team is offering Johnson & Johnson vaccinations in conjunction with Mount Carmel Health System.
After those early games, Gov. Mike De-Wine’s COVID-19-related health orders expired in Ohio, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that fully vaccinated people nationwide can ditch their masks and those pesky social distancing rules in most situations. We’ve spent the last year pining for things to go back to “the way they were”—meaning before a global pandemic turned our lives upside down and killed nearly 600,000 Americans—but are we truly prepared for this return to “normalcy”?
I don’t think I am. And it turns out, I’m not alone.
Unlike a lot of us who were forced into our homes last summer, Amanda Anderson was grinding it out, day after day, at The Hills Market Downtown. She’s the director of both marketing and wine and cheese at the specialty grocery store, and she and her co-workers didn’t get to spend their days baking sourdough, planting flowers and running virtual marathons. “We’ve just been living our normal lives but worse,” she says.
Today, after a year of this punishing routine, she’s feeling both burned out and anxious. “I haven’t been around a large group of people in so long. I don’t know what that would feel like, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t choose that for a very long time,” she says. Many others feel similarly, with nearly half of adults surveyed for a March 2021 American Psychological Association study saying they feel uncomfortable going back to their pre-pandemic lives.
Not surprisingly, masks have been a contentious issue at Hills. Early on in the pandemic, it was a struggle to support both employees who wanted to wear masks and those who didn’t, Anderson says. Then, once the mandate was put in place, the struggle became ensuring everyone on staff had masks, and then monitoring the customers to make sure they wore theirs.
“By the time we got to the holidays, I was just like, if somebody asked me a stupid question or somebody came in without a mask on … I didn’t really have any customer service left to give,” she admits, which is troubling to her because she takes great pride in being helpful and accommodating with customers. Nobody likes being the mask police, and she and her co-workers found themselves on the front lines, fighting a losing battle. “That definitely takes its toll, doing that six to eight hours a day.”
So is she glad the mask mandate has been lifted? Yes. Because it means no more “barking” at customers. And she’s excited that she can visit with friends, share some pizza and see their entire faces again. But is she still wearing a mask at work? Yes. How about when she goes out to eat? “Yes. I know what’s going on in [my friends’] lives, and I know their vaccination status. But a big group of strangers in a restaurant or indoors? I’m not comfortable with that. … I’m not really going to trust anybody that I don’t know.”
There’s a popular meme on social media related to the pandemic that says, “I’m still not over the way some of y’all behaved over toilet paper.”
That’s how I feel about masks. The relaxed mask guidelines issued by the CDC apply only to vaccinated individuals. Which means those of us who masked up, queued up and rolled our sleeves up—twice in many cases— get the reward of breathing in fresh air indoors or out. But estimates indicate that just around 40 percent of those Ohioans who can be vaccinated, are. Which means 60 percent of the people we encounter daily should still be wearing masks—and we all know that’s not happening.
And so, like Anderson, even though I’m fully vaccinated, I am not planning on giving up wearing masks in crowded public situations anytime soon because chances are the people who flagrantly violated the statewide mask rules for an entire year are the same people who refuse to do the right thing for their fellow humans and get vaccinated now. The CDC has us on the honor system when it comes to masks, and in this situation, we’re trusting the wrong people to be honorable.
Rebekah Hatzifotinos, owner of Basic Biscuits, Kindness and Coffee in Grandview, sees the mask issue differently. “I have full faith and belief in the safety of the vaccines and the science behind it,” she says. While she’s enforced the mask requirement in her shop since it opened in September 2020, she was excited for the opportunity to see her customers’ full faces when they stopped in for breakfast on June 2.
Hatzifotinos, her husband and their 12-year-old son have received their COVID vaccines. And as soon as it is safe to do so, she will have her 8-year-old son vaccinated as well. “I’m worried about him only in the social aspect,” she says. “I want his life to go back to normal.”
Among the elementary and middle school set, the pandemic ushered in “a whole new category of bullying” she says, one built around deviling children for masking up, or not, and using the “pod” excuse to exclude others from play. “Are you in our ‘bubble?’” she says, perfectly mimicking a child’s voice while rolling her eyes. “I was about ready to go knock on one mom’s door one day when my kid came home crying because he got sent home because he wasn’t ‘in their bubble.’”
The issue was made worse, she relates, because her family caught COVID in November. “You would think that we had contracted leprosy,” she says. “I mean, I don’t know if we’re imagining it, but sometimes we feel like, still, even though we’re way past it, that there’s some type of stigma on our family that we got it.”
I know how she feels.
I was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 28, 2020. By all accounts, I had a mild case. But instead of social stigma, six months on, I suffer from long-haul symptoms that affect my life every day. I still don’t know the joy of tasting that first cup of coffee in the morning, I missed smelling the lilacs when they bloomed in the spring, and I regularly experience bouts of brain fog that make concentration nearly impossible.
Like Hatzifotinos, I think the researchers who brought the COVID vaccine to market in record time are rock stars. And I trust science. But here’s where she and I differ: While she shrugs off concerns about secondary infections and asymptomatic transmissions (“I think you can hypothetical your way into panic for as long as you’d like,” she says), I just can’t help but think about all of those things these superhero scientists still don’t know about the disease and vaccine.
I don’t want COVID again because next time I may not be so lucky.
Both Hatzifotinos and Anderson are natural extroverts. They both say they suffered during the lockdown. Anderson become more introverted because of the intense interactions happening in the aisles of The Hills Market.
“Normally I would want to come home and talk to people or go and do something. There was nothing to do, but even friends who wanted to catch up on Zoom or something—you know, I haven’t used Zoom all year because I was leaving the house every day. I don’t want to do that. I was just too tired,” she says.
And Hatzifotinos, well, she sort of fell apart. “I was sobbing in my kitchen,” she says of a moment during the lockdown when she was trying to explain to her husband, an introvert, the impact the pandemic was having on her. “I said, ‘You don’t understand, my whole life is gone. Everything I liked to do for pleasure is gone. I can’t go shopping. I can’t go meet my friends for lunch. I can’t go to yoga.’ I couldn’t do anything that brought me joy.”
Truth be told, I didn’t mind the whole social isolation thing.
I’m a natural introvert, and I actually thrived during the pandemic. I started and finished multiple writing projects, lost 20 pounds, sold and bought a house, started a new job and grew my freelance writing career. Last year and the first half of this year, for me, was a renaissance (well, all but that whole having COVID part).
It’s because of this, and so many other reasons, that the thought of reentering the world gives me pause on good days and gives me butterflies, sweaty palms, heart palpitations and a raging case of verbal diarrhea on bad days. It seems that in a year’s time, I’ve forgotten how to act in a world where people aren’t standing at least 6 feet away from me, aren’t wearing masks and aren’t generally fearful that anyone they come into contact with will give them cooties.
And it’s not just me. According to the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, this type of anxiety is typical. “The change and uncertainly are anxiety-producing experiences for many, if not most, people,” says Lori Criss, director for the state mental health agency. “The pandemic brought forth a lot of change and a lot of uncertainty. And the recovery, this turning of the corner, is still having an impact on people. And it will for a while.”
There is always an uptick in the need for mental health services following a natural disaster or national crisis, she says. And while it may be harder to get our minds around this because we’ve never experienced something on a global scale, the coronavirus pandemic falls neatly into that category.
Conditions arising from a “significant event,” such as the world shuttering due to a virus running rampant and killing more than 3.5 million people, Criss says, include anxiety, depression, complex grief and post-traumatic stress disorder.
So, if you’re feeling anxious about the world returning to “normal,” that’s 100 percent expected and absolutely OK. Most people, Criss says, will be able to work through these issues on their own without needing “counseling or other structured help.” In fact, we can even build resiliencies from this collective hell that will actually enable us to “do difficult things in the future,” she says.
It’s like the coronavirus pandemic is creating an entire population of Meredith Greys.
How do those of us who choose to proceed cautiously in this post-pandemic world manage the inevitable conflicts that will come with our decisions to continue wearing masks, enforcing social distancing and slathering on the hand sanitizer?
Criss prescribes a healthy dose of self-care, including establishing routines, getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising and meditating to help shore us up when in contentious situations. “That helps us not take things personally when we’re in a situation where someone might not be supportive of a choice I’m making,” she says.
But what if it’s someone else’s choice I don’t support?
My mother moved to Arizona in April 2020. She’s 78, a smoker with a persistent cough and has blood pressure issues. She refuses to get the COVID-19 vaccine. No matter how much I beg or try to reason with her, she will not budge. And since I refuse to play any role in exposing my mother to a deadly virus, that means until the threat of COVID is gone, I can’t see her in person.
My kids graduate from college and high school next year. She’s never missed one of these milestone moments and is planning to return to Ohio to celebrate with my family. How do I tell her she can’t unless she’s vaccinated? I wish I had Hatzifotinos’ chutzpah to say, “It’s her life, she needs to make her own decisions,” but when it comes to family, it’s not always that easy. I wouldn’t be able to bear the crushing guilt I’d feel if my mom got this insidious virus on my watch.
So how do you navigate family celebrations in a post-COVID world? Do you include a line on the invite to “RSVP with proof of vaccination?” Do you leave the non-vaccinated out? Do you require everyone to wear masks because you know that Uncle Bill is a rabid anti-vaxxer and you suspect that your sister, Karen, is lying that she got hers at all?
These are the issues that will continue to plague us long after this plague is over.
In late May, I’m back at Huntington Park. The environment has changed dramatically following the governor’s and the CDC’s announcements. It is basically baseball as usual: no socially-distanced lines at the concession stands, not much space between people packed into those hard, green, plastic seats and nary a mask to be found.
It’s something that Clippers president and GM Ken Schnacke has been longing to see since the team won its 11th International League championship on Sept. 12, 2019.
But even he has his reservations.
“Obviously I’m excited, but I’m a little concerned. I don’t want anyone to come to the ballpark and get sick,” he says. His goal is to get back to “what is normal” while working to be respectful and supportive of as many fans as possible. “We won’t satisfy everybody, but we’ll try to satisfy as many fans as possible.”
For me, that means switching to seats that offer a little more natural distance and ignoring the snarky comments as I make my masked-up walk to the bathroom. It’s still a long way from the experience I loved before the world was turned upside down, but it’s the best way for me to enjoy baseball during this anxious time.
This story is from the July 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.
While it’s completely normal to experience anxiety, depression and grief related to re-emerging into our post-COVID-19 world, there are some people who may have trouble “bouncing back” on their own. If you or someone you love seem to be withdrawing, are more agitated or argumentative than usual, experience changes in eating or sleeping patterns, are avoiding responsibilities or activities previously enjoyed, it may be a sign that current coping mechanisms aren’t working and support from a professional is needed. Call the Ohio CareLine, 800-720-9616, or text 4HOPE to 741-741 (the Ohio Crisis Text Line) for 24/7 confidential assistance from trained professionals. It’s OK not to be OK.