Each July, Scott Wands and his neighbors on his street in Wethersfield hold a summer party, to swim in a pool, have a scavenger hunt, share potluck dishes and mingle in the sunny summer weather.
Wands hadn’t even started planning the party in mid-March, when everyone in the state was told to shelter-in-place at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We haven’t been in a grocery store since March 15. We’ve had most everything delivered,” said Wands, who has been working from home, as has his wife.
Four months later, the Wands family still is cautious. But the party still went on. No pool, mingling, or shared foods. But still, it was a party, with kids running through sprinklers in their own yards and adults in chairs under the shade of their own trees, eating food they prepared themselves and talking loudly enough to chat with their friends next door or across the street.
“It’s a safe way of dipping our toes back into the water in our ability to see our friends,” he said.
With an April surge of cases, the pandemic kept most people in the state stuck in their homes. But cases in Connecticut are plummeting and Gov. Ned Lamont has gradually eased restrictions. After more than 4,300 deaths, the state has seen several days with none. People have begun an uneasy process of venturing out.
Now, many are figuring out where to draw the line between staying safe and re-establishing their social circles. The question of how to get through lockdown is being replaced by new questions: Whom do you feel safe spending time with? How do you decide?
For Wands, nothing short of a COVID-19 vaccine will persuade him to get back to “the old normal” of socializing. “There is not as much community transmission. But there is still community transmission going on,” he said.
Others hear the stats and feel confident. Many are having unmasked conversations, going out and getting together with friends they haven’t seen in person for months — especially young people. They say they feel comfortable with people they know, and trust that they have been responsible about protecting themselves.
Becca Stefano of New Britain, 23, said Gov. Lamont’s cautious approach, and the decrease in daily fatalities, made her confident to go visiting. “There was zero new deaths in Connecticut. That makes me feel a little better about going out,” she said.
After spending the day at Vernon Diner, where she works masked at the cash register, Stefano hangs out with friends almost every day. Her trust in them makes her confident. She said they wear masks when they are indoors and stay 6 feet apart.
She said she is a people person, so she enjoys chatting with customers at her job. But even so, not being around her friends is difficult for her.
Still, Stefano holds off on visiting some people. “A friend has asthma and can catch the COVID easily. She’s staying inside. I haven’t been able to see her,” she said.
Ethan Grubelich of Farmington, 18, is locked down with his parents and siblings. He started expanding his horizons with outdoor activities such as biking and hiking and “tossing a football with friends.“ Now he feels free to hang around with his friends, as long as there are no people there he doesn’t know.
“I’ve watched a few movies with my friends since mid-June. We didn’t wear masks,” Grubelich said, adding that they sit far apart from each other.
He said he goes with his gut when deciding when to venture out. He doesn’t touch people or get too close. He doesn’t go into crowded indoor spaces. He trusts his instincts and his friends.
He said his parents trust his judgment, but worry about one thing. “They have problems with me going to the gym once it opened,” he said. “They are scared of that.”
Jake Bernstein, 15, has been careful when at home in West Hartford with his parents and two brothers. Mainly they stay home, but they wear masks when they eat outdoors in West Hartford Center, or when he strolls through Elizabeth Park. He said he felt safe doing it because he missed his friends and they were all careful. “We stayed 6 feet apart and we wore masks,” he said.
But he cut loose when getting together with his cousins. They had a vacation together at their grandmother’s home in the Catskills, while she is in Florida. He said he felt safe around his cousins because they had been quarantined at home in New Jersey just like he was in West Hartford, and had minimized their exposure to other people just like he had.
“We didn’t keep 6 feet or wear masks around our cousins,” he said.
But when they ventured out from that vacation home, they were vigilant about wearing masks and maintaining distance.
He felt uneasy one time. “A waitress wasn’t wearing a mask. There was a lot of small talk. ... I was uncomfortable there, with her serving food,” he said.
Other than that, he had a blast with his cousins. “It was a freeing experience. I felt sort of a sense of normalcy again. It’s kind of nice being in the mountains away from all the chaos,” Bernstein said. “In the Hartford area, there was a lot of fear in the air.”
Others, though, are more risk-averse. They want to socialize, but they are sticking to guidelines and being cautious.
For Barbara Carman and Susan Carey, what lured them out was the roomy, spread-out layout of the Parkville Market in Hartford, where they dined together on a recent weekday night. They sat far from other diners and wore masks when they were not eating.
“This place has good air flow, a lot of space. All the staff is wearing masks. I’m vigilant that way. If there is no mask compliance, I won’t hang around,” Carey said. “It’s such a very simple thing to do, distancing, being careful.”
Carman said “This is the only place I’ve eaten indoors.”
The women also said their comfort with each other made them feel confident. The women work together every Friday, handing out free takeout meals at Grace Lutheran Church. They know each is vigilant about their health, Carey said, because of their shared work.
“Because of the people we serve in the city, if one of us becomes ill, it could shut down the program,” Carey said.
For now, they socialize with each other and no one else. “She’s the only other person I’ve been with except my husband,” Carman said.
Trust the owner
Confidence in the atmosphere of a restaurant also drew in Bryan Wilkie of Hartford, who has been coming to Chez Est in Hartford almost every night for a few weeks. He joins friends there, including Donald Funk of West Hartford.
At the door of Chez Est are three bowls filled with colored wristbands. The red bands signal, “Hi! I’m keeping my distance.” The yellow bands signify “OK with talking but not touching.” The green bands mean “OK with hugs and high-fives.”
Wilkie said he trusted the club’s owner, John Pepe.
“I knew he was going to be careful about it. I could see he was taking the situation very seriously, so now I feel comfortable coming here. I don’t go anywhere else,” Wilkie said.
Both men prefer to sit on the patio to enjoy their drinks. They do not want to sit indoors yet, although on a recent night Wilkie and Funk were there, the well-spaced indoor tables were filled with diners.
Wilkie said his confidence in the restaurant, his sticking to outdoors and limiting his social circle make him feel safe. On top of that, he got tired of always being home.
But Funk said he won’t feel comfortable going back to the “old normal” until there is a vaccine, a cure or a therapeutic treatment for COVID-19.
“It’s almost like HIV/AIDS. They don’t have a vaccine, but people are doing well with the drugs they they have,” Funk said.
Wilkie echoed his friend’s statement, adding, “I want a vaccine, and a year” to make sure it works, he said.
Some people still insist on sticking close to home, with outings rarely if at all. Every day, former Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra puts on a mask to walk his lab mix Betsy in Bushnell Park, near his home. Except for July Fourth — when Betsy, spooked by fireworks, took Segarra on an unexpectedly wide-ranging run through downtown — Bushnell Park is the only place he takes Betsy.
“It’s good for your mental health to go outside and get some fresh air,” he said during a recent walk.
The park is often sparsely populated. “We’ve severely limited our contacts with other humans,” he said.
Segarra said he spends “98 percent” of his time at home, working. He goes out rarely, and is careful about choosing when.
“I had a friend who had a picnic. She’s still battling cancer. It was a wonderful picnic, but we needed to be safe,” he said, adding that they sat far apart from each other. “I’ve only done that for people who really needed the socialization.”
While the coronavirus numbers remain low, experts say adherence to strict social distancing is what will keep them that way.
Dr. David Banach, an infectious disease physician and the hospital epidemiologist at UConn Health, said the delaying of Phase 3 of reopening “is a reason to pause and heighten awareness of taking that extra layer of caution.”
Careful socializing still can be safe, he said, especially outdoors. ”The outdoor environment is preferred. But if you need to do something indoors, the next step is to avoid close contact as the primary measure to prevent transmission. If you are in close contact, wearing a mask is the most important piece,” he said.
Banach said he is socializing more, in outdoor spaces. “Outdoor activities take advantage of the summertime, the ability to go outdoors. That reduces the risk of transmission.”
When considering whether social interactions may be safe, Banach recommended consulting the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines, which advise vigilant cleaning and disinfection, both of hands and surfaces, and maintaining 6 feet of distance from others and wearing a mask when interacting with those outside your household. For more specific information, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/index.html.
Susan Dunne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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