In the unusually long (155 seconds!) ad for Wrigley’s Extra gum that went viral, people cooped up by COVID-19 suddenly realize it’s safe to leave their homes.
They test the air, examine the sunlight, then burst free with jail-break intensity to muscle their wild-eyed way into weed-choked office buildings, blissfully hug trees, and — most conspicuously — make out with one another with newly freshened breath as Celine Dion sings “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.”
While the first official days of Philadelphia opening up from pandemic lockdown haven’t resembled gum-chewing bacchanals of licentiousness (at least not publicly), folks have nevertheless been expressing joy about re-splicing into life’s main circuits, connecting once more to pursuits that were suspended, canceled, or flat-out forbidden.
“It just seems like I’m seeing raw happiness out there,” said Ceallaigh Corbishley, 31, manager and bartender at the International Bar in Kensington. “From the crowd, which is still outdoors for now, I’m getting a big sense of relief and positivity I’ve not seen before.
“People are probably hugging more than before COVID. It’s like we all made it to the other side.”
Philadelphia and its suburbs are being reconstituted, restored to a natural state of being after a surreal period of isolated confinement. The city officially lifted limits on capacity and social distancing requirements for all businesses and events Wednesday.
Corbishley’s boss, William Reed, 53, co-owner of the International, as well as the Standard Tap in Northern Liberties and Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown, said this has been a “transition week,” bringing us all closer to normalcy.
He added, “We’re on the cusp of big change. You hear the comparisons to the Roaring ’20s after the Spanish flu of 1918,” when America cut loose after another tragic and trying cycle of disease. “A big, sweaty dance party is around the corner.”
“People are sticking their toes in the water,” said Margaret Starke, senior manager of events and community partnerships for University City District. “They’re hungry for interaction, for fun. To me, it feels like hope.”
The most observable change: fewer masked people on the streets. Mouths and noses are reemerging, making humans look human again.
“When we first saw mask-less people during the pandemic, we took them for skeptics who didn’t believe in COVID,” said sociologist Joan Maya Mazelis, an expert on social ties at Rutgers University-Camden. “Now we see them as vaccinated people, following science and exuberant to be with others in shared space.”
There are signs everywhere that Americans are ready for a reordering.
About 80% of people with gym memberships said they are returning to working out, according to UpSwell, a national marketing agency.
Various news reports show that Americans, ever conscious that important aspects of themselves may have changed in lockdown, were investing in Spanks. And people looking to make special friends were spending more on deodorant and condoms.
More than 50% of “pandemic-fatigued” folks, especially millennials, are eager to splurge on clothes, beauty products, and electronics, according to McKinsey & Company Marketing and Sales, an international firm.
When more cars are a good thing
For Nicoletta and Vittorio Maio of Penn Valley, the increase in the volume of cars they see as they run in the morning is happy proof of a closed world opening.
“The landscape coming back to a regular pace and noise in a crowded environment — I didn’t like that before the pandemic,” said Nicoletta, 59, a professor of film studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle. “But I feel good about all that now.”
Her husband, Vittorio, 58, a health-care researcher at Thomas Jefferson University, said the extra cars tell him that “life is back.” It contributes to “an overall sense of liberation, with people wanting to feel human in the sun. And they all want to show off now — buy clothes for summer, get back into good shape.”
Nicoletta said she looks forward to the little moments, like encountering colleagues in the hallways. These are valuable contacts known as “weak ties,” Mazelis said, the small stitching that helps create the texture and rhythm of daily life: chatting with strangers at the bar or the bus stop, talking to parents at the school drop-off site.
“I hugged a relative stranger the other day,” said Lynn Bufka of the American Psychological Association in Washington. “It felt unusual and nice. We are seeing now how much we value connection.”
And yet, anxiety still ‘high as the ceiling’
Of course, while many feel joy upon society restarting, Bufka said, any number experience reentry anxiety.
“Now, normalcy doesn’t feel right, because it’s foreign,” said Melinda Engel, 43, of Center City, who works for a software company. “Change can be difficult.”
Genevieve McCormack, 45, an attorney from Haverford, got in touch with her inner introvert during the pandemic, and it’s who she is now.
“I like hiding behind the mask,” she said. “Not thinking about how I look, or whether I smile. I don’t like crowds, and I like canceling plans. I’m 5-foot-8, but I look really tall on Zoom, and I like that. I want to retain the slower pace of being home. I’ll probably never go back to my office.”
For Lesley Curtis, 43, of South Philadelphia, the parent of a 7-year-old girl, the pandemic continues to rage on.
“People with children under 12 are still being quite careful,” said Curtis, who owns a communications company. “There are no vaccines for the very young, and it would be pretty awful to have done over a year of isolation and then have your kid get sick at the end.”
Older Americans also tend to exhibit more caution, according to Barbara Becker Holstein, a Monmouth County psychologist. “Over 50, you’re worried about if you need a booster, if you still should wear a mask,” she said. “You’re more guarded.”
For many of us, our brains are already rewired to live under a COVID-19 regime, experts say. They can’t simply forget the dire warnings that changed day-to-day existence just because the government is easing restrictions. Such people will continue to, if not wear masks, then wrap them on their wrists like corsages and take them everywhere, it seems.
“For many, anxiety is still high as the ceiling,” said Lise Van Susteren, a Washington psychiatrist. “The idea of going out, getting close to people, can be a very steep climb.”
As the world celebrates and these folks cocoon, they become additionally marginalized as they develop yet another source of stress, Van Susteren said: “‘Everybody is happy now but me.’”
But, as vaccines quell COVID-19 like water bests fire, the parts of ourselves we hid and suppressed appear to be too strong to remain wrapped any longer.
“My band has played a few shows in Rittenhouse Park and we’ve been met with unbridled joy,” said Sam Gellerstein, 27, of South Philadelphia, the trombone and tuba player in the brass band SNACKTIME, formed during the pandemic.
“There’s been a ton of people coming up to us saying we brought them to tears because we’re the first live music they’d heard in 15 months.”
“I have to say, it’s quite a relief to be a part of this celebration.”