Many contemplate life or career changes after a year of quarantining; ‘It gave me that nudge’
Sarah Smalls is tiptoeing back into her old routine, now that she is fully vaccinated against Covid-19. She hosted Easter dinner. Her adult son now stops over for indoor visits. She and her husband plan to travel again.
But like many other newly vaccinated Americans, Ms. Smalls, who is 74 and lives in Lorton, Va., isn’t seeking to merely unfreeze and restart her pre-pandemic life.
Ms. Smalls says the person who went into the pandemic isn’t the same person coming out. She is emerging with new goals, priorities and concerns. The long pause that forced both isolation and introspection has been a catalyst to change course.
Ms. Smalls intends to finally learn how to swim. She wants to take weekend trips with her best friends. And most notably, she won’t go back to the frenetic pace she kept for years while raising three grandchildren and working at a nonprofit.
“As the kids say, ‘I’m gonna do me,’ ” Ms. Smalls says. “It took a pandemic to come along and show me that you don’t have a whole lot of time to do what you want to do. It gave me that nudge, and it was a hard nudge.”
Millions of Americans are now deciding what they will consider normal life as the country’s massive inoculation campaign picks up pace. The ranks of the newly vaccinated are facing decisions about where to go, whom to see, which plans to dust off and which to scrap. Some are moving quickly to book trips or sit in movie theaters again, while others are proceeding more cautiously.
In Boise, Idaho, Rick Halstead, a 54-year-old project manager for Boeing Co., says that after getting his second vaccine recently, “everything feels attainable once again.”
But he says it feels a bit strange that he isn’t interested in pivoting back to some of his pre-pandemic interests, such as a tradition he and his wife, Julie, had of traveling to a different ballpark every year. This summer, they would rather plan long weekends with extended family. “It feels like we’ve been so starved to see friends and family—that is what feels more important now,” he says.
Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, expects a range of reactions as the public transitions into regular life. On the one hand are predictions of another Roaring ’20s, which might be true for some, she says.
Yet she believes many will shed the pandemic gradually. “First you have to recover from being burned out,” she says. “It’s almost like you have to find that joy again.”
Emilie Krasnow, who is 35 and lives in South Burlington, Vt., says she is starting to find joy as she emerges from an exhausting year, in which her unabating worry was to keep her mother, Susan, a cancer patient, from getting the virus. She isn’t only picking up the many things that fell to the wayside, such as exercise and dating, but also adjusting her professional focus.
Ms. Krasnow, a political campaign strategist and volunteer community organizer, has
Sarah Smalls, center, with, clockwise from left, her grandchildren and her husband, Curtis, at home last week. DEE DWYER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
tackled problems that take years to solve, like the need for affordable housing. Now she has shifted her volunteer work to helping people with immediate needs, such as food and small-business loans.
“I will continue to do that,” she says. “We are not over the pandemic. A lot of people act like we are. Even if we’re vaccinated, that doesn’t help people who have been out of work for months.”
Older adults, who were prioritized for inoculation, are among the first to navigate post-vaccine life.
“It’s like stepping out of a cocoon,” says Bonnie Sumner, 76, who lives in Woodland Park, Colo.
Ms. Sumner says she has sworn off her old habit of hyperplanning the schedule at every family get-together. “Chill, Mom,” her sons would tell her.
She says the pandemic, with all its sadness, put things in perspective. “It’s been a very transformative year,” she says. “I don’t want to care anymore about everything being perfect.”
Ms. Sumner tried out her new persona when she and her husband visited their sons in Milwaukee for Passover. At the Seder meal, hosted by a son and daughter-in-law, Ms. Sumner got out of the way; the old her, she says, would have taken charge and wound up “exhausted and crabby.”
“I just sat back, and I’m very proud of myself,” she says.
In Flagstaff, Ariz., Emily Luna, who is 27, says even after getting the vaccine, the switch won’t flip easily for her. Ms. Luna, a nanny, works for doctors’ families and heard firsthand about the dangers of the virus. Her boyfriend, a hotel worker, was in a high-risk category. “Our whole life has been keeping indoors for the past year.” she says.
Ms. Luna describes the pandemic as a “looking-inward moment” that is prompting her to finally finish online credits for a college degree, take better care of herself and reach out to friends.
“Even pre-pandemic I was a little bit of a hermit, but I will try to be more social,” she says. “Life is so short, right? You never really know what could happen.”