When Erin Clemens sees images of packed ballparks on TV, she’s struck with nostalgic sadness. In pre-pandemic summers, she would be among those in the stands, she said, usually watching a Wilmington Blue Rocks or Reading Phillies game with her family.
But now, even as many return to pre-pandemic activities despite continued spread of the virus, Clemens, who is on the autism spectrum and has other health issues, doesn’t feel safe in crowds.
“I miss that,” she said. “That to me is regular life, and I can’t be a part of that while the pandemic is not over.”
Clemens never imagined this deep-seated anxiety would still play a role in her life every day.
As the region begins its third pandemic summer, several area residents with whom The Inquirer spoke expressed the same disbelief in how long COVID-19 has been a part of their daily thought process and, for some, a source of anxiety. Others, however, say they have few worries about the virus anymore, and aren’t changing plans this summer because of it. If anything, some say, the periods of isolation have motivated them to do more with family and friends.
Summer, after all, is often a carefree time of vacations, lazy days at the pool or on the Jersey Shore beaches, and more time for outdoor activities with families and friends. Even after COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the first pandemic summer provided a temporary — albeit cautious — respite after an isolated spring. Then, summer 2021 was for many an idyllic return to normalcy post-vaccination as the city reopened.
Heading into summer 2022, however, cases rose again with the spread of new variants and waning immunity from primary vaccination and boosters.
While average reported cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey now show signs of declining, they are much higher than they were during the same periods in 2020 and 2021. The number of reported cases is also likely a vast underestimate due to the prevalence of at-home tests, which weren’t as widely available in prior years and aren’t included in official counts.
At the same time, restrictions have been lifted nearly everywhere in the city and the suburbs. On the surface at least, life can look much like it did in summer 2019, minus occasional masks (which are also no longer required in most places). The government and public health officials who once offered detailed pandemic guidance are now advising people to assess their own risk factors in determining whether to return to pre-pandemic activities.
For some, like Megan English, that means living life without much thought about the virus.
English, 38, of Phoenixville, said she was cautious when COVID began and got vaccinated. But when her 67-year-old father, William McCarron, died of complications from the virus in November, it persuaded her to commit to checking items off her bucket list.
“I knew after he passed that my father would never want me to hole up in my house for God knows how many more years, and be afraid of living life to the fullest extent,” English said.
This summer, she said, that means attending a wedding celebration for her uncle and going to rock concerts, including a Nine Inch Nails show in Louisville, Ky., in September.
When booking the trip, she said, COVID “wasn’t even a consideration.”
Meanwhile, others say they are returning to pre-pandemic activities with caution.
Brian Cleary, 51, of Havertown, said the pandemic made him and his wife realize “life is short” and they decided to sell their Shore house in Strathmere to travel more. This summer, they’re going to Arizona and California with their four children between the ages of 14 and 19.
“We’re doing a lot more things as a family,” he said. “We still haven’t gone to many giant concerts or ball games.”
Elizabeth Henry, 40, of Abington, and her family are planning vacations to Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Florida. They’ve gone to the movies, wearing masks, she said, but prefer outdoor activities.
“At a certain point, we assessed risk and reward,” said Henry, who recently recovered from the virus. “This is a multiple-year pandemic at this point and with [the antiviral drug] Paxlovid available and boosters and the vaccine, I am scared but not scared enough to not do things outside of my home.”
In West Chester, Audrey Forbes, 30, is taking a similar approach.
“I would say that I am trying my best to go into summer like, ‘Everything’s fine. It’s just a normal summer,’ ” she said.
But “there is a concert coming up,” she said. And “I’m worried about it. … I’m going to keep an eye on cases.”
Overall, she said summer typically improves her mental health, which she has struggled with since the pandemic struck. In spring 2020, Forbes moved from New York City to her family’s home in West Chester and had her job in corporate sales for Hanes eliminated.
Now working for a modeling agency from her one-bedroom West Chester apartment, she said she looks forward to hiking, skateboarding, and being outside as much as possible this summer.
In the winter, she said, “it’s hard to have enough outlets.”
Meanwhile, in Chester, Delaware County, Stephanie Perez, 71, said she has all the outlets she needs in her home, where she stays most days except to go to church or do curbside pickup at a grocery store.
“I have the mindset of I have a house, that God gave me. I have television. I have food. I have water. I have everything I need. When i have to go out, I put a mask on to be thoughtful,” said Perez, who has emphysema. “Why would you not look out for your fellow man?”
There’s more anxiety for Amber Lee, 34, of Exton, who is pregnant with her second pandemic baby.
During her first pregnancy, from June 2020 to March 2021, she was “terrified,” she said, and “pretty much stayed in the entire pregnancy” with the exception of a few outdoor activities such as fishing.
This summer, she said, the young family is planning a vacation to Canada or New England, but will mask in crowded public spaces.
“I try and make the best decision with each situation,” she said.
As a therapist, she has seen the pandemic’s impact on mental health, and tries to keep that in mind in her own life.
“What I’m seeing in the mental health field is people needing help but not enough help,” she said. She advises people to seek help, even if they don’t think they need it urgently, because wait lists are often long. “The lingering trauma is a real thing.”