Reopening anxiety: As Illinois celebrates the milestone start of phase five, some are uneasy about dropping pandemic protocols

·9 min read

CHICAGO – As Illinois is set to fully reopen Friday — loosening most capacity limits and dropping many pandemic protocols — Jeanne Egizio of west suburban St. Charles said she’s remaining cautious and will keep practicing some social distancing measures, even when they’re not required.

While the 59-year-old is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, she has asthma, which puts her at a greater risk of severe illness from the virus. She also had a serious case of H1N1 during the swine flu outbreak of 2009, an experience that left her more vigilant for her health and safety.

For now, Egizio plans to forgo large public events and continue masking indoors when among strangers, who may or may not be vaccinated.

“I’ll get some looks, don’t care,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, I don’t know. If you’re not wearing a mask, it creates a tiny bit of anxiety in me, because I don’t know whether you’re vaccinated.”

Many pandemic-weary Illinois residents are celebrating the milestone start of phase five and a return to near-normalcy, planning a summer of travel and concerts and many of the communal events that had been on hiatus for more than a year.

Yet others express unease that COVID-19 safety measures might be dropping too quickly.

Some are concerned for the welfare of young children and those with medical conditions who can’t get vaccinated against the new virus, which has so far killed more than 595,000 in the United States and roughly than 3.75 million internationally.

Others fear reopening could be a precursor to another surge, particularly since local vaccination rates have yet to hit herd immunity. While those who are unvaccinated are asked to still mask up and keep social distancing, this will often be on the honor system.

“Of course I am extremely concerned about segments of our population who do not have access to (the) vaccine due to being homebound, too young, lack of access to transportation,” said Egizio, adding that she also worries about vaccine-hesitant folks who refuse to get the shot. “I am also concerned about countries where there is not access to vaccine like (there is in) the U.S.”

Clinical psychologist Sheehan Fisher said feelings of anxiety amid reopening make sense.

“It’s been over a year where we’ve been conditioned to have a certain level of fear about being around people without a mask or being in proximity with others,” said Fisher, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “That’s a significant amount of time that can condition us to avoid those types of interactions.”

While it might seem counterintuitive that a positive turning point can spur unease, Fisher noted that there’s still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the virus as well as how the world will operate with fewer pandemic constraints.

“This is a normal human response to some of these changes,” he said. “We created a new norm for quite a while. Though this is a positive change, it can still feel quite foreign and it may mean that naturally it might take some time to adjust to that.”

Masking, distancing ‘without apology’

To better handle reopening apprehension, Fisher recommended first examining the source of the anxiety.

If the unease is more emotion-based — for example, certain behaviors might continue to feel unsafe without basis, simply because they haven’t been practiced for so long — Fisher encouraged gradually introducing a return to pre-pandemic life.

That might mean going outside without a mask or gathering in small groups with other vaccinated friends, increasing social interactions and dropping restrictions incrementally, until fewer constraints feel more comfortable.

In some cases, people might be afraid to get used to things being good again because they fear a return to quarantine, Fisher said. He pointed out the times during the pandemic when restrictions were loosened, only to have positivity rates soar, followed by more constraints. Businesses have reopened and then closed. Schools have gone from in-person classes to remote learning to hybrid models, frustrating the parents and students and educators who had to quickly switch from various formats.

“So it might be even, for some people, more comfortable for the world to stay restricted, because it might be taken away,” he said. “But that also means missing out on an opportunity to have a break from such strict restrictions.”

For those with health issues or concern for family or friends who are higher risk, Fisher recommended determining personal guidelines and then enjoying a less restrictive life within those bounds. That might mean avoiding certain crowded events or masking in public, even when others are not doing so.

He added that it’s important to set these limits ahead of time rather than making a litany of decisions for each situation, which can be draining and result in knee-jerk choices based on in-the-moment emotions as opposed to logical reasoning.

“Across the board, I think everyone needs to preestablish what is their limit and boundary, and then live within that freely,” Fisher said.

Then once those personal guidelines are set, hold to them “without apology,” he said.

“Wear the mask without apology and enjoy yourself rather than feeling like I don’t want to go out at all because I’m going to be the oddball out,” he said, adding that despite shifting social norms, “you still have the right to make your own choices for you.”

Maha Ahmed, 36, of northwest suburban Hoffman Estates, said she plans to continue wearing a mask in public spaces where she doesn’t know everyone’s vaccination status.

While she’s fully vaccinated and feels more at ease, she’s masking in part to set an example for her children, who are too young to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I do worry about those that are not able to be vaccinated yet, whether it be because of age or other health reasons,” she says. “It seems as though the infection is starting to slowly trend toward the younger population because they are not afforded the protection of the vaccine, so that definitely causes me concern.”

Right path

Virginia Mann of north suburban Evanston was excited when the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began and, now that she’s fully vaccinated, feels very protected against the virus.

But she believes society is trying to jump back to normal far too soon.

“I think we are too early in the process to abandon our precautions,” she says. “Until we have herd immunity, we’re all still at risk at some level.”

While roughly 54% of adults in Illinois are fully vaccinated, according to state health statistics, the state is still far off from reaching herd immunity, a threshold some health experts have estimated at about 80%.

Mann, a public relations executive, says she’s going to keep wearing masks when she goes grocery shopping, to the doctor’s office or anywhere indoors in a public setting.

She’s also concerned about the emergence of COVID-19 variants and wants to help stop the spread of the virus in part to guard against mutations developing and proliferating. The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, earlier this week urged more Americans to get immunized, warning of the new “Delta” coronavirus variant spreading rapidly in the United Kingdom.

“I know that even though I’m vaccinated, I can still get the virus,” Mann said. “It’s unclear whether I could still be infectious to others and how infectious.”

Amy Cole, 46, of north suburban Gurnee, says she won’t be attending any large concerts or crowded events this summer, and plans to eschew indoor dining for the time being. She’s also not intending to “throw away my mask” anytime soon.

While she’s fully vaccinated and not too worried about her own health, she’s concerned for her 9-year-old daughter, who is too young to get the vaccine.

“Obviously, I want to protect her in any way I can,” she said.

She points out that there’s a spectrum of behavior that can fall somewhere between full lockdown and a complete return pre-pandemic norms, and people have to navigate their own levels of comfort.

“Absolutely nothing about any of this is 100% black and white,” she said. “It hasn’t been throughout the pandemic and it isn’t now. You can’t say this is 100% safe or 100% unsafe. You have to analyze with your own personal risk tolerance.”

While Cole isn’t quite ready to fully return to normalcy, she’s hopeful that Illinois and the nation are heading in the right direction in terms of battling the virus. The state COVID-19 positivity rate is about 1%, the lowest since the pandemic began. More Americans are getting vaccinated every day.

Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner, on Thursday touted the city’s rapidly declining COVID-19 numbers as reason to be confident about Friday’s full reopening in the city and state.

Chicago is averaging just 79 new coronavirus cases per day, which Arwady called “really amazing” compared with days when the city topped 3,000 cases. The daily case number is down 41% since last week.

“This is just really great progress,” she said.

Arwady added that the city continues to recommend that anyone who is not vaccinated, including young children, wear a mask, particularly while indoors. However, she noted that parents will make different decisions based on their surroundings and personal experiences, like letting children take off a mask in settings where all adults are vaccinated.

She also stressed that organizers of camps, day cares, sports games and other settings where children are gathering are “absolutely within their right to be setting mask requirements,” even if a blanket mask order will no longer be in place from the city.

As for Cole, she said she’s “optimistic for the future.”

“It does really seem like we’re on the right path,” she said. “It’s only short-term. We know we’re not going to be here forever. I think it will be a good summer and so many things will get better.”

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(Chicago Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart contributed.)

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