What's behind the rush to return to 'normal'? Experts say optimism, frustration and desperation may be factors.

·6 min read

As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to be administered across the country, new cases of the virus are trending downward. And even though public health experts warn there's still a long way to go until the pandemic is over, plenty of people — and companies — seem to be rushing to return to a sense of normalcy.

AMC Theatres opened 98 percent of its U.S. locations on March 19 and plans to have 99 percent of its theaters open by March 26. Adam Aron, CEO and president of AMC, said in a press release that it gives him "immense joy" to reopen. "It's about time," one person wrote on Twitter in response to the news.

Despite data clearly linking unmasked indoor fitness classes to the spread of COVID-19, the state of New York just started allowing classes to resume – with masks and other precautions in place – at 33 percent capacity. After being shuttered for more than a year, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure park are set to reopen on April 30. And The New York Times recently reported that senior citizens are venturing out after being fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Miami officials also recently imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on residents and visitors after spring break crowds, featuring mostly unmasked people, flocked to the city.

While there are plenty of people who say that they're nervous about returning to normal life, others seem to be ready to dive back in. Currently, there is a seven-day average of 55,083 new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. each day, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cases began dropping in January after a sharp post-holiday peak but have mostly plateaued recently at numbers that are only slightly below the surge the country experienced this summer.

So, why are some people rushing this?

Optimism is a big factor, Craig Smith, associate professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, tells Yahoo Life. "Several things that point toward a potential return to normal becoming increasingly realistic — the vaccines becoming increasingly available, states loosening up restrictions — are happening at the one-year anniversary of the start of the pandemic," he says. "This is encouraging people to think back, more so than they might otherwise, and reflect on the past year, what life under pandemic conditions has been like, and about all the things they have missed. This sort of reflection can intensify people's wishes to get back to the way things were before the pandemic."

Many people are also feeling frustrated after more than a year of having to comply with restrictions, Chu-Hsiang Chang, a professor of organizational psychology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life. "People want to feel a sense of control and autonomy — being able to go on about their day without any impediments generated by the pandemic itself, or the safety protocols that are designed to keep us healthy but may restrict our plans in some way," she says.

Many people also "feel life was easier, more social, less stressful and less anxiety-filled pre-pandemic, and therefore it stands to reason they would like to recoup their prior lives," Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio, tells Yahoo Life.

Some people crave a return to normalcy so much that they're "feeling desperate," Lily Brown, director of research at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "That's contributing to some risky behaviors," she says.

While plenty of people may feel frustrated with pandemic life, not everyone is rushing to do pre-pandemic things. The reason is "so complex," Brown says. "Part of it boils down to perceptions of relative risk and safety," she says. "The choices that some people are making now are obviously unsafe to others. It seems like many of us are on [opposite] ends of the spectrum."

People who are living life in pre-pandemic style may also feel that they have stronger reasons to take a risk right now, Chang says. "They have been in isolation, and having to make major and undesirable adjustments to their work and lifestyles, that make them really want to get out of the current situation and go back to normal," she says.

Perception also matters, Smith says. "Those who are really impatient to get at least some things back to normal can interpret the loosening restrictions in certain areas as indicating that the newly permitted activities are safe, regardless of what the evidence suggests and what health experts recommend," he says. "On the other hand, those who place a premium on their own, and their family’s, health and safety may attend more to what the health experts recommend, and may be willing to take things more slowly and to more strictly follow guidelines from the CDC and other sources."

Why now?

There could be a few factors at play. "We have some new guidance from the CDC that gives people who have been vaccinated more permission to interact in close quarters with others," Brown says. "Once you start opening the floodgates, it can be hard to set new boundaries — that's making some people go overboard in terms of their behavior."

Greater distribution of the vaccine — 128 million doses administered and counting — is also leading to a push to return to normalcy, Smith says. "Through the increasingly widespread administration of vaccines, we are taking real steps toward ending the pandemic and being able to safely return to aspects of our lives that we had to put on hold to contend with the pandemic," he says. And, while it may be safe for fully vaccinated people to return to some level of normalcy, with precautions, it can be hard for the unvaccinated to resist the urge to do the same.

Reports about new variants of the virus can also cause people to go one of two ways, Brown says: Some will be extra cautious; others will be worried about another lockdown and are "acting out" to try to get out as much as possible before that could happen.

Mental health experts agree that it's a lot to navigate. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to a return to normal," Chang says. "We all have to find a path that works for us." Chang urges people to be "patient with ourselves and one another" in the return to normalcy.

A sense of pre-pandemic normalcy will come back for everyone at some point, Saltz says—we're just not there yet. "At this point, it’s not yet really safe to do that for those people who are not fully vaccinated, and that is still most of us," she says.

Smith offers this advice: "Try to get a realistic vision of what a return to normal will look like. Very clearly it is going to be a process that unfolds over time."


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