The last few weeks, as COVID restrictions have eased around Pennsylvania, people’s spirits seem to be lifting a bit. With the exception of some masking requirements, all mitigation orders were lifted in our state two weeks ago, meaning businesses can open up at full capacity. The state also has announced that those last masking requirements will be completely lifted on June 28, or sooner if 70% of adults get their second vaccine dose.
While we’re still in the woods — many people continue to be out-of-work, struggling with finances, dealing with the deaths of loved ones from COVID and non-COVID reasons, and having missed any contact with extended family for a year or more — there are some signs that people are feeling a bit more positive.
On my runs around the area I see people smiling, because I can see their faces. During the past several weeks I’ve had many people respond with a “Hi,” “Hello,” “Good morning” or “Great” to my Joey Tribbiani-inflected “How you doin’?” as I jog by. This is in stark contrast to the last 12 months when many people were tripping over themselves to just get away from others on the sidewalks and running paths, let alone respond to a social nicety.
On Memorial Day weekend I even ran with 100 or so others in the Black Moshannon 5k to benefit the YMCA of Centre County. That was the first in-person race I’ve run since the Disney Princess half-marathon on Feb. 23, 2020 – not because I didn’t want to, but because races weren’t taking place.
My son and I recently traveled to and spent a few hours with my parents for the first time in over a year – an all-too-common story during the pandemic. But we are not the only ones traveling again. The Transportation Security Administration reported 1.85 million and 1.95 million air travelers on the Thursday and Friday of Memorial Day weekend. Those were the largest daily numbers of air travelers since March 2020. And my social media feeds have recently been populated by posts from friends who are traveling to places such as Florida, Las Vegas, various beaches and many other locales.
While we’re physically starting to see these signs of turning a corner, financially there are also some positive signals that will be of interest to many people around Happy Valley. I’m on a number of different political email lists, one of which is from the New York State Comptroller. I received an email two weeks ago from him announcing that the New York State Common Retirement Fund’s estimated overall investment return was 33.55% for the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2021. That was the largest one-year investment return in its history.
You might ask, why does anyone in Happy Valley care about how New Yorkers did? Because many employees at Happy Valley’s largest employers are on the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System’s (PSERS) Plan. Last fiscal year, New York’s return was -2.68%. In calendar year 2019 the PSERS Defined Benefit Plan investment performance was 18.8% after a -4.6% return the previous year. Pennsylvania’s 2020 returns have not been reported yet, and their fiscal year differs from New York’s, but it’s probably safe to say PSERS 2020 rate of return should be very good. That should put smiles on the faces of all those Happy Valley residents with retirement money in the PSERS system.
Things are starting to look up, the clouds are parting, and there are matters to be happy about as we get back to normal.
Life is looking up enough that as my wife (who recently celebrated a red-letter birthday) and I were sitting outside the other day doing our daily “grounding,” we started listing the positive things we’re taking away from this pandemic. It was a positive thing in and of itself since at that moment we were viewing the pandemic as a past-tense event.
Here is that list of the top 10 items we realized we were taking away from the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Time with our immediate family. Although time with our extended families was significantly reduced or completely eliminated, time with our spouse and kids was greater than usual – especially as our children have grown into young adults – and we realized how much we enjoy and cherish those times. And how we should try to have as many of them as we can moving forward.
- Slowing down. Because over the past year we couldn’t go many places and do many of the things we normally did, we were forced to slow down and recalculate how we spent our days. Especially days when we weren’t “on the clock.” As exciting and motivating going places and doing things can be, a little introspection born of slowing down is a great way to decide how best to spend the limited exciting and motivating moments we get in life.
- Honoring a life. Death has been a major focus of the pandemic not only for the hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths in this country, but for the millions of people who died from other reasons during the last 18 months. There are a number of ways to honor someone’s life after they died, and coming together to do so is certainly one of the best. The pandemic made congregating in person difficult if not impossible, however, technology did offer us livestreaming and remote participation options. The importance of doing something to mark the passing of others is an important part of our healing journeys and an honor and privilege we won’t forget.
- Appreciating good old-fashioned in-person meetings. The bane of business everywhere was in-person meetings. Incessant, meaningless, mind-numbing and soul-crushing. The almost complete elimination of office work and business travel took the small video-conference segment of technology (Skype, FaceTime, Zoom and others) and blew it up. Suddenly everyone was doing meetings online. Yet I rarely am on a business-oriented online meeting where I feel satisfied with what happened, how it happened or the result. Body language, inflection, comportment, presentation and just the sheer act of showing up on-time and in-place brings a different dynamic to a meeting. So, as much as I abhor meetings, after a year of doing them online I now appreciate the in-person option.
- Appreciating technology for bringing together people from far-and-wide. My wife, however, has found online options that allow her to meet people she would never have otherwise had the opportunity to meet. Meetings that have been as-needed, significant, interesting and deeply moving. The opposite of the usual bane.
- Physical contact. We both really value two simple physical contact gestures: On a personal level the act of hugging someone, and on a business level the act of shaking hands. Granted we understand different cultures have other ways of engaging in physical contact to establish connections, and physical limitations for some people require adjustments or make these gestures difficult or impossible, but hugging and hand-shaking are two we welcome bringing back into our daily repertoires.
- Online ordering, delivery and pickup. Prior to the pandemic we ordered a few household items and clothes online – a necessary option for those like me who need difficult-to-find tall clothing – but a social outing to any one of a number of stores in Happy Valley was the preferred method of stocking our house. Though that is still the case when possible, especially for locally owned and operated stores, we have certainly increased the frequency and quantity of items we order online. And food from restaurants is almost always ordered online and picked-up – sometimes even with curbside delivery!
- Flexibility of working from anywhere. Although working from home is something I have been doing for a few years, it took on new aspects when the people I work with began doing it as well. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for people to get back in the swing of the office environment, but I really do appreciate the flexibility that working from anywhere provides.
- Low mileage. We went from averaging around 35,000 miles a year between our two vehicles the previous five years to 11,000 miles last year. Meaning we probably won’t have to replace the cars as quickly, maintenance costs were reduced, we saved over $2,000 in gas expenses, and 400 hours (16 complete days!) on the road. That resulted in a lot more time for No. 2 above and No. 10 below.
- Decluttering. Or what could be called continuous spring cleaning. Spending more time at home made us more conscious of what we keep in and around our home and in our lives. We started thinking regularly about which things mean something and which are just taking up space, or worse, causing issues. What provides enjoyment and what just requires periodic cleaning and upkeep. What is necessary for us on a daily basis and what can be gotten on an as-needed basis. And from all that thinking we’ve become much more intentional about what we’re allowing to stay in our lives.
As bleak as his last year has been, here’s wishing you too have some positive things to take away from this pandemic.