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Post-pandemic, what will our new normal look like?

When Connecticut shut down in March 2020, few expected that the COVID-19 pandemic would last as long as it has.

Now that nearly 25% of the state’s residents have received at least their first dose of the vaccine, and Gov. Ned Lamont is preparing to roll back many of the restrictions he put in place one year ago, what will life be like after the pandemic? And how has the past year changed us forever?

Much remains to be seen, but we talked to some experts about what post-pandemic life could be like.

For one, it probably won’t take 100 years for another major pandemic to happen.

“We’re going to get pandemics on a more regular scale,” said Marc Zimmer, a chemistry professor at Connecticut College who has studied the 1918 influenza pandemic and is teaching a new course called “COVID-19: Diseases Without Borders.”

Like the flu, COVID-19 is going to be around for a long time, he said. While most of the time people will go about their lives, there will be outbreaks that could lead to shorter lockdowns.

Zimmer has family in China, where life has largely returned to normal, and said what’s happening there could provide a template for the U.S.

“When there’s an outbreak, everything immediately stops. Everyone goes into lockdown. They do it on a very local level. Everyone gets tested in a massive way. Then they go back to normal again. I think that’s what we’re going to be looking at,” he said.

Zimmer is also predicting a “massive” uptick in social activity following the pandemic. Many people will want to go to concerts, museums, out to eat, he said — aspects of their lives they largely haven’t been able to experience in the past year.

“I think everyone is itching to do whatever they miss the most,” he said. "That might in turn lead to a bit of a change in culture.”

While Connecticut restaurants will soon be able to operate at full capacity and people will be able to travel about more freely, other measures put in place to control the spread of COVID-19, such as face masks and social distancing, aren’t likely to disappear so quickly.

“I was having a discussion with other physicians recently and pretty much everyone agrees, the masking is going to stick around for quite a while,” said Dr. Peter Morgan, chair of psychiatry at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

The flu was all but eliminated this year due to people staying home, wearing masks, distancing and washing their hands. Morgan sees masks becoming more common on public transportation and airline flights, and also thinks people with underlying health conditions may choose to continue to wear them at times.

Just as it took us time to adjust to our “new normal” in the pandemic, it will be a while before we fully adapt to our new circumstances.

"We’re used to keeping distance now. We're not hugging as much. We're mindful of 6 feet of space, masks," said Nakia Hamlett, visiting professor of psychology at Conn College.

Public health guidelines will help advise people how and when it's safe to start socializing without masks, but people also will make their own decisions about when they feel safe doing that. Hamlett suggested taking it "one event at a time, starting with small groups of people" one is comfortable with.

The pandemic has dominated our conversations the past year, Hamlett said, so we'll have to "relearn" how to socialize in a more light-hearted manner.

This year has been filled with loss — the loss of loved ones, jobs, a sense of normalcy. That's affected us in a myriad of ways, and it remains to be seen how the pandemic will affect our mental health over the long term.

“Young children, for example, could be vulnerable to some long-term effects of a year of living quite differently,” Morgan, at L+M, said. “Was there a certain age group that was particularly affected? If you were between 8 and 10 or 12 and 15, for example, are you going to have higher rates of depression or anxiety in future? We’ll have to wait and see.”

For many adults, the pandemic meant giving up control, for the first time, of "where we go, what we do and how we do it," Hamlett said.

"It put many of us in a position of accepting that we don’t have control and we do have uncertainty," Hamlett said. "We had to slow down, be more mindful in the moment, be more careful."

In the aftermath of the pandemic, she hopes "we can keep that more present focus and less of a rat race."

Though, it remains to be seen if people will be able to do that, she said.

“We’ve been very patient. Continue to be gentle with yourself and with the process and be optimistic that we will get back to some level of normalcy soon,” Hamlett said. “We did great. We came through this. We did the best we could.”

j.bergman@theday.com

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