States set dates to lift COVID restrictions. Why experts say having a goal for reopening is important for mental health.

·6 min read

More than 56 percent of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. And now, some major metropolitan areas are promising a full reopening in the near future.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announched on Monday that businesses, including retailers, restaurants, gyms, amusement parks, hair salons, museums, theaters and offices will be able to operate at full capacity on May 19, in coordination with New Jersey and Connecticut.

The New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority will resume 24-hour subway service starting May 17. The state also plans to lift food and beverage curfews on May 17, and its indoor dining curfew will be lifted on May 31.

That appears to preempt previous statements by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio that the city was planning a full reopening by July 1. “We’re ready to come back and come back strong,” DeBlasio said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last week. “We are ready for stores to open, for businesses to open, offices, theaters, full-strength.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in early April that the state will fully reopen on June 15, but will retain its mask mandate. “We can now begin planning for our lives post-pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement. “We will need to remain vigilant, and continue the practices that got us here — wearing masks and getting vaccinated — but the light at the end of this tunnel has never been brighter.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Monday that he signed into law Senate Bill 2006, which allows him to override any local COVID-19 restrictions in the state. The bill goes into effect on July 1, but DeSantis said in a press conference that he will issue an executive order to suspend local restrictions sooner. “I think folks that are saying that they need to be policing people at this point, if you’re saying that, you really are saying you don’t believe in the vaccines, you don’t believe in the data,” he said.

The news is a big change from the restrictions many have been living under for a year and a half. But, many experts say it’s time.

“This was the purpose of the vaccination campaign — to be able to return to a pre-pandemic way of life,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “Hospital capacity is no longer a concern because many high-risk individuals have been vaccinated. It’s probably long since time to do this.”

Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious disease at the SUNY Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life that the timelines are “relatively realistic.”

“Cases are coming down,” he says. “But I would like to see the numbers get down even more before we get to a wide reopening and continue vaccination of individuals.”

Still, not everyone agrees that it’s time to reopen. “We need more people to be vaccinated before restrictions should be lifted,” Dr. Richard Watkins, professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.

There are also a “substantial” number of people who aren’t yet vaccinated, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “I don’t think we will have reached our ideal level of herd immunity that early,” he says.

However, having a goal for reopening is important for mental health, psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. “Looking ahead to an end goal is a mature, rational coping mechanism for anxiety,” he says. “Many of the coping mechanisms that people have used to cope with the pandemic have been our most primitive and least-effective coping mechanisms, such as denial and avoidance."

But knowing that things will reopen on a set date can be “motivational and energizing,” Mayer says. He recommends that people view the reopening dates “as reinforcement to keep up the fight of doing what we all have been doing to beat this situation.”

Knowing that reopening is coming also gives people time to psychologically adjust to the change, Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast on iHeartRadio, tells Yahoo Life. “This is helpful for people who’ve felt frightened by the idea of exposure to COVID-19,” she says. “It gives them time to adjust to the idea of ‘being back out there,’ it lets them start to practice in smaller ways and it gives them confidence that the leader of their state is not just opening up to open up, but has been evaluating the data and public health advisers to determine when there is safety in opening up.”

It also allows for planning, says clinical psychologist Alicia Clark, author of Hack Your Anxiety. “Planning gives people a sense of control. It’s not a panicked kind of feeling.” Clark has seen some people who dread the idea of reopening, but says those she’s spoken to who have gone back to some semblance of normal life, including going to the gym or returning to the office, have been “so grateful to be back.”

If you’re feeling nervous about reopening, Saltz recommends starting slowly. “Start doing what’s considered safe in your area but you haven’t been doing, even if they are baby steps,” she says. That might mean having unmasked walks outside with fully vaccinated friends and then going into a store while wearing your mask.

“The more experiences you have, the more your anxiety will decrease,” Saltz says.

While Saltz acknowledges that reopening plans can change, she urges people to remember that “nothing in life is 100 percent certain” and that “we live with uncertainty all the time.” Still, she says, “it is very reasonable to plan as though this is your plan, and odds are it is.”

If restrictions in your area are lifting, Schaffner recommends that you remain cautious, even if you’re fully vaccinated. “If you’re going into enclosed spaces where there are lots of other people, have your mask handy,” he says.

If you’re fully vaccinated, Russo says you “can take a deep breath and know you can start getting back to a pre-COVID life.” But, he adds, people who aren’t vaccinated “need to be more cautious. You’re carrying a risk, and it could be significant.”

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