On Valentine’s Day this year, chef Daron Goldstein welcomed a sold-out crowd of happy couples from all over eastern Maine to his Ellsworth restaurant, Provender Kitchen and Bar. He watched them dine on dishes like apple and chicory risotto and ricotta dumplings, and heard the cheerful sound of laughter and glasses clinking.
One thing he didn’t hear or see much of? Questions about COVID protocols, or many people wearing masks.
“We’re not getting the questions anymore, people asking ‘What are your protocols? What are you doing with masks?’” Goldstein said. “They’re just coming out to enjoy themselves. It’s not that people aren’t aware of it. I think they’re just used to it. And they’re not scared anymore.”
With the worst of the omicron wave receding, many across Maine seem to have decided at some point in the past month or so that the time to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic is now, and that precautions like masks, social distancing and chronic anxiety about potential exposure or illness are finally on their way to being a thing of the past.
Life with COVID-19 continues to be difficult, including for families with young children who can’t be vaccinated, health care workers and those who are immunocompromised. But the shift in attitude is not without a grounding in fact.
Nationally, average new daily cases on Friday were down 68 percent from two weeks before, and hospitalizations were down 40 percent, according to the New York Times’ virus tracker. In Maine, most factors also point to the worst of the omicron wave being behind us. Hospitalizations on Friday were down by more than 40 percent from a record high on Jan. 13, and testing has shown a waning presence of the virus in samples from municipal wastewater systems.
Schools statewide are figuring out when the right time is to ditch mask mandates, with state health officials planning to revisit their recommendation for school mask requirements after February break. There’s been no statewide mask mandate in place for public indoor places since last May. Only a few towns have imposed their own, and at least two of those have dropped the rules in the past week. And while some individual businesses have their own mask policies, many are quickly modifying or jettisoning them altogether.
“We’re actually at a point where we’re considering, as a staff, taking our own masks off. It’s not like most of our customers are wearing them,” said Joshua Moulton, who owns downtown Bangor bar, restaurant and entertainment center Queen City Cinema Club with his wife, Tiffany. “We also just want to get back to normal.”
Skye Washington operates Skyefitness, a fitness studio on Park Street in Bangor, where every day she sees both individuals and groups for personal training sessions and workout classes. She got COVID a little over a month ago, despite being fully vaccinated and boosted, and though she said her symptoms were very mild, she realized when she came back to work that the attitude among her clients had changed — as had her own.
“Probably six or seven other clients of mine all said they’d gotten it, too,” Washington said. “I just feel like a switch flipped at some point in the past month or two. I think people are just like, ‘It’s everywhere. We just have to learn to live with it.’ It’s just going to be a part of life now.”
It’s only been recently that a genuine light at the end of the pandemic tunnel has appeared. It almost seemed that way in early 2021, when the vaccines first came out, but in August the delta variant quickly squashed that hope. When delta abated in the fall, it was replaced in mid-December by the faster-spreading but milder omicron variant.
The fact that so many people contracted COVID between the end of December and late January seemed to be its own kind of turning point for many people, said Betsy Lundy, executive director of the Downtown Bangor Partnership.
“When omicron hit, I think it was a big wakeup call, because a lot of people had to stay home or shut down because they had cases on staff or in school,” she said. “But they survived. And I think it ultimately helped a lot of people figure out how to exist with this being something that’s endemic in society. It taught everybody a big lesson.”
Though it would be an understatement to say that the pandemic has been a challenge for everyone, Lundy said she’s been heartened by the overall resiliency of businesses of all stripes in downtown Bangor and beyond. Though there were some casualties, for the most part, businesses survived — and their customers have returned.
“I think our worst fears did not come to pass, which is pretty amazing. I think as a business owner, you kind of have to be equipped to roll with the punches,” she said. “I think everybody just had to figure out how to balance themselves on the shifting ground. And the ground is never going to stop shifting — but now we know how to navigate it.”
A sense of relief has come with what seems to be a general acceptance of COVID-19 becoming a part of life that’s, hopefully, in the background, rather than at the forefront. Goldstein said that sense of relief is palpable among his customers at Provender.
“We have lived under this uncertainty and anxiety for so long. That just can’t last forever, especially now that things are getting better, and there’s vaccines and better treatments,” he said. “A year ago, the vibe was really different. We were all still pretty worried. But now people are ready to be out and around each other again.”
What exactly a post-pandemic world looks like for both business owners and customers remains to be seen, though many are looking forward to finding out.
Washington opened her brick-and-mortar business in January 2021, so her entire experience as a small business owner has been during the pandemic. She said she’s excited to see what a more “normal” world looks like for her, though she also said some pandemic things, like online classes, will stay in place.
“I don’t think the option to take a class online is going anywhere. I think people really like the freedom to be able to do that if they can’t come in person,” Washington said. “That said, I’m actually excited to finally meet clients in person that I’ve only ever seen on a 12-by-12 screen.”
The Moultons have hired four new employees in anticipation of a busy spring and summer season during which they intend to be open seven days a week for the first time since the pandemic started, and since they expanded Queen City Cinema Club to include an arcade and full kitchen in October 2020.
“We’ve never known a time in our current configuration where it wasn’t the pandemic,” Moulton said. “I’m just super excited to see what our full potential really is. I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the future.”