Finding Normal in the COVID-19 Era

As we cautiously venture back to some of our former activities, ideas about masking, distancing and vaccinations are all over the map.
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sandy ton is shown after an interview regarding how her business was impacted by the covid-19 pandemic
Sandy Ton, owner of Nature Love Salon. Photo by Wes Davis.

On a recent Sunday at First Christian Church in East Sacramento, the praise band performed, and members of the faith community prayed aloud and belted out hymns. Many lined up for communion. Afterward, there were hugs. It was a sign that the COVID-19 era had largely passed. Every row in the church was occupied. Joyful relief was palpable.

But amid the communal worship and celebration, there was caution, too. A note in the program reminded congregants that while masks were optional, nine rows in the back of the church were reserved for those wearing them. Self-serve communion kits were available. A video camera livestreamed the service for still-wary church members.

“It’s not just about doing the things we think will keep people safe, but also helping people feel safe,” says First Christian pastor Ted Firch, who has met regularly with lay leaders during the pandemic to come up with the guidelines. “We have said, ‘You’re invited to keep your mask on if that makes you feel safer. You also have a right to say, ‘I’m not comfortable with hugging at this point.’ We explained this up front so people could have the language and permission to set those kinds of boundaries.”

While everyone yearns for a full return to normalcy after two years of shutdowns, takeout meals and Zoom gatherings, COVID-19 still infects and kills people—among them the most vulnerable among us, including older people, those with chronic conditions and anyone with an impaired immune system. While most pandemic-related mandates have ended, unease and confusion about what to do and not to do linger.

“The numbers have dropped below anything we’ve seen since the summer of 2020, so in that sense, it’s good,” said Sacramento County Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye in May. “There is still a possibility that a new variant will come up and escape all the other protections we have and cause another surge.”

To navigate this period, Kasirye urges a common-sense approach that considers others’ health and safety. That means vaccinations, boosters and wearing a mask in crowded settings or around people at high risk of serious illness.

“We are very interconnected,” she says. “We are not in our own little bubble. There are things we do that impact others.”

The nail technicians at Nature Love Salon on J Street understand that. While salon customers now mostly leave their masks at home, the technicians mask up as they buff, file and paint nails. Salon owner Sandy Ton says her staff opted to keep masks on even after the county lifted the mandate in hopes they wouldn’t catch the virus and bring it home.

“Most of them are from Vietnam,” she says. “All of them are immigrants. Most of them live with their parents and even grandparents.” Multigenerational households are common in the Sacramento region, particularly among immigrants and people of color, for whom COVID-19 has taken an especially terrible toll, with higher-than-average rates of infection, hospitalizations and death.

Kasirye says masks, especially well-fitted N95s or KN95s, can still help protect someone against the virus even when no one else is wearing them. For some, including many kids, masks are the norm and provide a sense of security in uncertain times.

Elliot Gardner is 12 and only occasionally pulled off the mask to participate in certain activities, like PE classes, in the spring. This summer, he’ll have his mask handy when he goes to sailing camp and to music camp, where he will play piano.

“He’s getting more comfortable not wearing a mask, but it’s still a little scary for him,” says his mother, Sharyn Gardner. “Kids have spent more of their lifetimes percentage-wise wearing a mask. Two years is a lot when you’re only 12.”

Danielle Sanchez picks up and delivers groceries for Instacart, an app-based business that boomed during the pandemic. She continues to wear a mask, she says, in part because she has terrible allergies and doesn’t want her frequent sneezing to worry others.

“But also, we are constantly going into grocery stores and are around people,” she says. “We are trying to be safe.” She also worries about her grandmother, who has lung problems and tends to easily pick up infections from younger family members.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in April found that 75 percent of kids in the United States have been infected with the virus. And while their symptoms tend to be mild, children can unknowingly spread COVID to their families, classmates or others they encounter.

Still, many children have not received the vaccine even though it’s the most potent weapon against COVID-19 infection and serious illness.

Nancy Blanco, who is vaccinated, has taken great care to keep her family safe. On an afternoon errand for ice cream in Sacramento’s Florin neighborhood, Blanco’s kids, Vanessa, 13, and Steven, 9, both wore masks. Vanessa says she eagerly took the vaccine because she wanted to feel safe, especially at school. But Steven has so far refused it.

“He is afraid of it,” Blanco says. “It makes him very anxious. He says the vaccine is not good for him.” Blanco isn’t sure where her son got the misinformation but acknowledged that myths about the virus and vaccine run deep in her community.

Kasirye urges everyone to tap into reliable sources for COVID information.

“People need to understand how our immune system works, how vaccines work, and why it’s so much better to be vaccinated than to get the disease,” she says. “Our immune system is battling all kinds of invasions all the time, and vaccines speed up the body’s ability to recognize foreign entities and stop infection.”

COVID-19 vaccines are still not approved for children under 5. That’s why Lori LaRocca, 60, was wearing a mask as she boarded a plane recently for a long-delayed trip to San Diego with a friend.

“When the mask mandate was lifted for the airlines, I thought that’s not a bad thing,” she says. “But I have a grandson who is under 5 and not yet vaccinated. I will see my daughter next week, and I don’t want to get COVID and give it to her since she could give it to him.”

LaRocca adds that it’s impossible to know whether other passengers are vaccinated or infected with the virus, and the mask makes her feel safer.

“I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, but not everyone here is,” she says. “I don’t go into the grocery store with a mask anymore, but at the grocery store you are not in a seat next to someone you don’t know for an hour and a half.”

Vaccination status doesn’t bother airline passenger Michelle Ogaz, who was relieved she no longer had to wear a mask and says she uses her shirt collar or sleeve to cover a sneeze or cough.

Ogaz, of Williams in Colusa County, doesn’t think masks are effective; she says she was wearing one when she got the virus. She is also unvaccinated and feels confident that she’s now immune to the virus.

Marina Texeira owns Sacramento’s Torch Club, the venerable downtown bar and live music venue. She closed the club for 16 months during the pandemic, and when she reopened in June 2021 she followed county COVID requirements. At the time they did not include wearing masks or proving vaccination status for indoor public spaces.

“When people are dancing, singing or drinking, it’s very hard to monitor the mask wearing,” she says. “That would be a full-time job.”

But within weeks she was seeing people getting infected and decided to tighten the rules, asking patrons to prove they’d been vaccinated and wear masks when not sipping cocktails or drinking beer—even while dancing. Texeira also insisted musical guests be vaccinated or test negative for COVID prior to their gigs.

Longtime patrons generally applauded the protocols, but she also dealt with significant backlash from opponents of the measures who let her know how they felt about her rules. Texeira was upset but undeterred.

“A lot of my patrons tend to be middle-aged, and I wanted them to feel safe,” she says. “It was a hard line, but I felt like I could sleep at night knowing I am doing everything I can.”

Texeira has now dropped those COVID rules, and she feels more confident that customers are safe, especially because the newer variants are less lethal. But, she says, “I could change that in a heartbeat if I see it going the other way.”

Businesses with the luxury of remote operations also have evolved with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. At Lucas Public Affairs, a downtown public relations firm, employees now have the choice of in-person or remote work.

“We have a really dynamic team and a beautiful office, so being able to be together in the office was really important, but so was flexibility,” says office manager and HR lead Ally Refnes.

To work in the office, employees must prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or show a negative test within 24 hours, complete a health questionnaire and use an app to reserve office space.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Sharyn Gardner, then interim director for Sacramento State’s Center for Teaching and Learning, was at the forefront of assisting faculty in shifting to virtual instruction. Since reopening the campus to some in-person classes in the fall of 2021, she has helped navigate the easing of restrictions and looks forward to a return to mostly in-person classes and events this fall.

“We are trying to get back into the groove,” she says. “It is not necessarily back to normal.”

Gardner, chair of the Department of Management & Organizations, knows that some people will continue to wear masks or ask others to do so in the classroom, especially those who are over 60, at higher risk, taking care of an ill family member or have young kids who are not yet vaccinated.

Given that the region is not out of the COVID woods and that everyone is eager to be on campus for teaching and learning, she’s confident that such requests will be honored.

“They are respecting the needs of others,” she says.