How Bay Area Families Cope With Post-COVID Social Anxiety

Some are ready to return to normal and others are still hesitant. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? (Illustration by Davide Barco)

More than anything, Michelle Soon would love to see friends for brunch and cuddle them. Her emergency room doctor husband Billy Liang longs to bond with his sister’s new baby, cook dinner for friends, and play with the guys in her group.

The San Jose couple may have a special push to get back into some semblance of pre-COVID-19 social life: They had to call off their dream Napa Valley wedding in October and missed seeing loved ones, who had planned to fly from Asia. and out of state.

But Soon and Liang have said they will still take slow steps when it comes to being with people again, even with everyone they know who gets vaccinated and Gov. Gavin Newsom said restaurants , clubs and other gathering places were set to fully reopen on June 15. .

“One of the things my friends and I talk about is that we’re not even sure we can see other people again without thinking it’s a little weird,” Soon says. “Normally when we saw each other we hugged each other, shared food. Now there is definitely a new normal.

Michelle Soon and her husband Bill Liang pose for a portrait in the backyard of their home, where they were married last October, April 14, 2021, in San Jose. (Dai Sugano / Bay Area News Group)

They are hardly alone. Sociologists and psychologists say this social anxiety makes sense: we have all been through a traumatic global event. As a deadly virus invaded the population, we quickly reorganized our lives and adopted new daily habits. We’ve gotten used to wearing masks in public and not shaking hands – pandemic habits that many believe could become new social norms. And we got used to not being with other human beings, as book clubs, parties, proms, first dates, 12-step reunions, and holiday celebrations moved online.

Rhydian Fraga, 2, center, plays with balloons next to his mother Jessica Mildwurm, right, at a family reunion in San Ramon, Calif., On Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)

Right now, people are going through what Yale doctor and sociologist Nicholas A. Christakis calls the “immediate post-pandemic period,” which he says will continue at least until vaccines are widely available. or that we get collective immunity.

People are recovering from the “global clinical, psychological, social and economic shock of the pandemic and the necessary adjustments”, writes Christakis in his book “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live” (Little, Brown Spark, $ 29).

“I don’t think there is more normalcy,” says Toni Rochelle Baker, a mother of two in Walnut Creek, who has lost a best friend, a grandfather and an aunt to COVID-19. After her mother received the vaccine, Baker says she finally felt safe spending a lot of time with her and going to Easter services with her in Oakland.

“It’s not that I don’t pray for normalcy, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” says Baker. “We have so much uncertainty about vaccinations and COVID variants. Period.”

8-year-old Aria Fraga plays with bubbles at a family reunion in San Ramon, Calif. On Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)

Being with people again means dealing with a myriad of awkward social situations. We won’t necessarily know who is vaccinated, whether it is okay to get together, or how to navigate different people’s ideas about the vaccine or wearing the mask, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Christina Johnson from San Jose said she needs to convince her 63-year-old Vietnamese mother, who lives with her, her husband and her one-year-old son, to make an appointment for a vaccine.

“There was so much misinformation there, especially in the Vietnamese community,” Johnson says, “but once she saw my husband get the shots and some of his friends, she felt more out of it. ‘easy.

But Johnson has had “more difficult conversations” with relatives who did not take security as seriously as she did. “We had to turn down a few family celebrations, or they stopped inviting us on the theory that they think we’re going to say ‘no’ anyway,” she says.

Orinda therapist and author Margie Ryerson has worked with parents who still feel deeply hurt by loved ones who would not wear a mask around their 7-year-old daughter, who has cancer. “Everyone gets the shot, but they still feel so hurt and resentful because there were parents who thought they were overreacting,” Ryerson says.

Rebecca Mildwurm of San Ramon feels lucky that she was able to avoid these conflicts in her family. She could count on her parents to see only their grandsons, Elliot, 3, and Leo, 1, through a glass door during the first months of the pandemic, although her mother, Ruth Mildwurm, says, “I think that was really confusing for Elliot.

Family members watch Aria Fraga, 8, left, bubble at a family reunion in San Ramon, Calif. On Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)

But Mildwurm, his brother and sister quickly formed a family “bubble” that allowed his sons to see his parents and have yard dates with cousins. Getting the vaccine ultimately allowed everyone to drop their masks around each other, but Mildwurm is still worried about a new wave of coronavirus cases when it comes to expanding her bubble .

“I think it will be another two years before we get the situation under control,” she said.

An understandable level of angst remains among Ruben Abrica’s neighbors in eastern Palo Alto. With a large population of black residents, Latinos or essential workers, his city has been hit hard by the virus.

“We are a small community and everyone knows someone who has been sick and died,” says Abrica, a member of the city council. He hopes people start to feel more comfortable socializing by July 4, but organizers have planned a virtual Cinco de Mayo, and the Juneteenth festival will also be far away.

But teens and students, who are at an age where being with peers is a crucial part of becoming independent, are especially eager to reconnect with friends.

“Most of the people here are ready to go back to normal life,” says Ellen Maita of Danville, a freshman at Santa Barbara City College. Classes were conducted online and she had to quarantine herself with roommates in Isla Vista when they all caught mild cases of COVID. “We want our college experience to come back.”

There is also a pent-up desire in many single adults to this day. Emyli Lovz, co-founder of San Francisco-based matchmaking service emlovz, says men and women have started including their immunization status in their online profiles and predicts that many clients will continue to do much more initial verification via Zoom.

One of Lovz’s clients, Luke, 47, worries that knowing a person’s immunization status could give people a false sense of security when they rush into intimate encounters. The San Francisco resident, who has requested that his full name not be used to protect his privacy, is also wondering if COVID has permanently changed dating expectations.

Luke has been on a lot of “socially distant dates” during the pandemic. And just like in a “Jane Austen novel,” he says, it took a lot longer to hold hands or make a physical connection.

“But once that happened, there was still gas on fire,” Luke says. People were suddenly spending all of their free time together. By the third date, they would feel they already needed to have the “talk” about exclusivity.

As harsh as the lockdowns have been, many said their adaptation efforts have inspired them to connect with friends and family more than usual and connect in new and meaningful ways.

Soon and Liang ended up having their dream wedding – in their backyard with their immediate family. They worked with an entertainment company to broadcast the ceremony live and chat with friends and family via Zoom. And they said their marriage took on extra meaning because they had to focus on what was really important.

“I’ve always wanted a small wedding,” Soon says. “It would have been nice to have some friends, but we also felt it was important to keep everyone safe. Seeing everyone on Zoom has always felt the love and connected in a certain way. “

Michelle Soon and Billy Liang had to call off their dream wedding in Napa Valley in October and ended up having it in their backyard with their immediate family. They worked with an entertainment company to broadcast the ceremony live and chat with friends and family via Zoom. (Photo by Geoff Bardot / Kindness)

Before Newsom announced the reopening of California’s economy on June 15, planning for summer gatherings continued to be curtailed, said Sue Doyle, co-owner of Denon and Doyle, the entertainment company Soon and Liang hired. for their marriage. But live streaming demands for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs and funerals have increased.

“I don’t think live streaming is going to go away,” Doyle says.

Indeed, Benicia writer Sheri Hoffmann says she has attended several “mind-blowing” memorials on Zoom, where people around the world, who likely would not have attended in the pre-COVID era, have shared stories. testimonials or joined smaller chat rooms to say hello. “It was different being in person,” she says, “but it was just as rich.”

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