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Column: Slowly emerging back into society

My Apple Watch buzzed on my wrist as I drove west along Sunrise Highway. At a quick glance, I could see it was an alert telling me how many minutes from home I was.

The Maps app was eager to give me directions back home. Nowadays, my Apple Watch seems to assume home is my only possible destination. The farther away I get from my house, it’s like my watch grows more and more concerned. 

10 minutes from home. 20 minutes from home. Where are you going? Turn around!

This has been what pandemic life has turned into. My wife now refers to me as Quarantine Joe. The husband she once knew, who would stick to a familiar daily routine, now finds himself wondering at the end of a day, “Did I shower today?”

There’s a feeling of hope now that life is on track to a return to normal, at least a more normal than where we stood a year ago as the coronavirus surged toward its first peak. Even at this point last year — just about a month into pandemic living — there was still so much uncertainty and unknown. My wife began to discuss scrapping her baby shower, planned for June. But June seemed so far away, I thought. A drive-by baby shower could be odd by the time June rolls around, I naively imagined.

Of course, we soon found out the pandemic was here to stay and life wouldn’t be back to normal by June, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving or Christmas. We all experienced a quarantine birthday and holidays apart from families.

For me, last weekend felt like the long-awaited milestone moment in the return toward normal. On Easter Sunday, I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, thanks to the recent eligibility expansion to everyone 30 or older. The moment itself seemed a bit anti-climactic. I was lucky enough to get an appointment at a CVS just a few minutes from my house, so it felt no different than running up for a flu shot. I was more than content to miss the experience of driving to one of the mass vaccination sites in Brentwood, Stony Brook or Southampton. 

On Saturday, I returned to a live sporting event to watch the Islanders play the Flyers at Nassau Coliseum. It had been 545 days since the last time I was inside an arena or stadium, all the way back to the second game of the Islanders’ 2019-20 season in October ’19. It’s the longest stretch I can remember without attending a sporting event.

I didn’t necessarily plan to go to a game this soon following the announcement that a limited number of fans were being allowed back inside. Having researched the safety precautions in place, my wife — who’s now fully vaccinated — felt confident it would be safe for us and surprised me with tickets for my birthday at the end of March.

It was a lengthy process just to attend, starting with a virtual doctor visit through Northwell Health. I spoke to two people on my virtual appointment, who then set me up for a COVID-19 test a few days before the game. I needed to test negative for COVID within 72 hours of the game. On Friday afternoon, the results popped up in an email and sure enough, I was negative. One more step remained: filling out a health pass through the Islanders website that all fans were required to complete, which I believe would assist with any contact tracing if an outbreak did occur.

On game day, we pulled into the vast parking lot and were directed to socially distant parking spaces. We had our temperatures checked at the first outdoor checkpoint. At a second checkpoint we presented our negative COVID test or proof of vaccination. And then finally gained entry with our mobile tickets.

There were no concession stands inside, just a few food trucks set up on the building’s perimeter. There was no alcohol for sale, which definitely helped keep bathroom lines down. The concourse was roped off to keep fans moving in separate directions. And everyone wore masks.

It was a surreal experience to sit inside a nearly empty arena while cheering on a team well positioned for the playoffs and vying for the division title. Of course, the limited capacity had its benefits. Plenty of leg room! Quick trips to the bathroom! No traffic leaving the arena! 

The Islanders, after blowing a 2-0 lead, went on to win a shootout. In a normal year, I would have been high-fiving strangers around me as the Islanders’ goalie made the final save to secure the win.

But even as life slowly climbs back toward normal, we’re reminded we’re not there yet. The pandemic continues as we race to get everyone vaccinated. 

Unlike this time last year, though, we can see the hope on the horizon. It just requires a bit more patience until we can be back inside a full arena.