Something strange happened to me this week.

I found myself around a crowd — twice, in fact.

It was strange because it seemed so retro, like a ghost from the way my life once was long ago.

Since the pandemic began last year, I’ve been avoiding crowded situations like the plague, so to speak. The fact that events like Riverboat Days, Czech Days, Ribfest, Rock ‘N’ Rumble and so many others were canceled made my defensive isolation easier. I also worked to keep my distance from people at those events that did occur in 2020, like the Menno Fourth of July parade, Yankton’s Halloween fireworks display and the Hartington and Yankton holiday parades. I tried remaining masked and detached.

But this week, unavoidable circumstances made it seem like old times again.

I shot photos at Tuesday’s Rotary Club meeting where Sen. John Thune was the featured speaker. The indoor venue was packed, which was jarring at first. Most people at the meeting weren’t masked, but judging from the overall demographics of the crowd, many of them may have already been vaccinated (although I know some of them weren’t). I also ran into Sen. Thune for the first time in a long time, and at first, we didn’t know whether to shake hands or bump fists. Otherwise, when the meeting got underway, I maintained my distance from those gathered, which I probably would have done anyway, even in the pre-pandemic days, because that’s the way I’m wired.  

Wednesday’s event was a little different. I spoke to some students at Mount Marty University, and this featured the more recent trappings of COVID precaution. Most everyone was masked and the seating generated social distancing. I was on stage and a good distance away from people, although that remained entirely normal because this is the Midwest where no one EVER sits in the front row.   

Still, I had two close encounters with two groups in two days — like the old times, but not. It felt a little like standing in a canyon and suddenly hearing a familiar echo loud and clear from a shout that had been fired off a lifetime ago. It was actually nostalgic, albeit in a guarded, provisional sense.

We all hope that the pandemic is winding down, that the vaccinations and growing herd immunity can win the race against the variants while also prevailing over our own increasingly relaxed behavior. Most of us have worked hard for this victory.

In the meantime, the quest to return to normal figures to be an adventure. It will vary from person to person, just as individual responses to the COVID-19 onslaught have stretched the spectrum. Some of us are quickly throwing off our pandemic shackles, while others are being cautious and taking the smallest and most deliberate steps, vaccinated or not.    

How easy will it be to embrace our old rituals or routines? For some, it will be simple — probably too much so. For others, the bunker mentality could be hard to shake, even though they’re thoroughly sick of it.

As a community, state and nation, we’re making progress in our COVID-19 battle but we haven’t reached a safe harbor yet. The recent case trends are causing some concern, as they should. With Yankton County’s number of active cases now about double what it was in early March, I recognize that normal may not be quite as close as we all dearly wish.

But the momentum is real. And for many people, it could be the littlest things, like being around a crowd again, that may serve as the greatest mile markers in our path forward.

For now, my return to normal will remain a careful journey. Dealing with crowds again was indeed a familiar-but-foreign, comfortable-yet-uncomfortable experience. It was a step; that’s all it was. But at least it was a step in a more hopeful direction.

Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.

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