Here, the ‘COVID numb’ are vaxxed, vexed and trying to make it work

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On a recent Friday night at Lake Ridge High School in this suburb south of Arlington, Alex Hawkins sat by himself in the upper reaches of a gymnasium that, in the vernacular of the day, allowed plenty of social distancing.

Although not everyone in the gym was wearing a mask, he was.

In an effort to stay safe, Hawkins, a 47-year-old trainer at Duncanville High School, whose Panthers were playing the Eagles of Lake Ridge, opted for isolation above more congested seating below. As Hawkins watched the boys’ basketball teams complete their warm-ups, he waxed philosophical on how to cope.

Like most Americans, he’s committed to playing by the rules, to observing the guardrails, but like the millions who are not defiant amid a global pandemic—who believe playing by the rules will end it quicker than anything—he longs for the day when life can return to normal. Whatever that is.

“The best thing that we can do is wear face coverings, practice social distancing, wash our hands. It’s the small things—get vaccinated. It’s the things we can do to try and prevent it. Practice social distancing, and just be mindful of where we are with the disease and how we’re going.”

As for those sitting below him in the Mansfield gym, Hawkins said, “I’ve loosened up my stance on some things. This crowd is fine. If we had about three, four, 500 more people, then I would be concerned.”

The gymnasium surrounding Hawkins was nowhere near capacity. Spectators—some masked, others not—hovered for the most part in lower sections close to the teams’ benches.

“I’ve lived most of my life not having to wear a face mask, or worry if I’m vaccinated, or worry if I’m too close to somebody,” Hawkins said. “And now, in two years, these are my concerns. We’ve seen people die; we’ve seen people get sick.”

And then, expressing what we’re all feeling, he added with a sigh, “We’re sick of it.”

The show must go on

Kenneth T. Novice, the president of Dallas Summer Musicals, knows how Hawkins is feeling. Novice, 59, is triple vaccinated, as is most of his staff. At his company’s venue, the Music Hall at Fair Park, he follows a strict policy of making every patron wear a mask, no exceptions.

The policy has worked. Since the Music Hall reopened for touring Broadway shows in August—after being dark for 17 months—the venue has welcomed more than 230,000 patrons, to Wicked, Hamilton and Jersey Boys, underscoring what Novice calls a new spin on an old mantra:

“The show must go on.”

We hear a lot about the high-profile people who refuse to get vaccinated, tennis star Novak Djokovic being the latest, but in Novice’s opinion, such cases shadow a false narrative. Most people, he says, are vaccinated. Most are trying to do everything they can to stop the spread.

And yet, whether vaccinated or not, people all over the world are, at this point, “COVID numb.” They disagree overwhelmingly with the anti-vaxxers but at the same time crave a return to normalcy. If you’re in business, like Novice is, what you don’t want is a return to the three dreaded words of 2020:

“No earned income.”

It’s a process of learning to cope, of learning to deal with a global pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide, and whose latest variant, omicron, is adding its own cruel twist to the ongoing drama.

Whether it’s found in a vendor booth at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, or on the Katy Trail, or Victory Park, or a classroom or in the Mansfield gym, thousands of people in North Texas adhere to the Novice philosophy, each in their own way believing:

The show must go on.

Making ends meet

Raymond Gibby sits at the end of a long line of vendor booths in the convention center, tightening his brow behind thin-rimmed glasses as he molds a clay mass into the beginnings of one of his bronze sculptures.

As omicron spreads, he sits unmasked and unfazed amid a sea of hunters and wildlife enthusiasts all visiting Dallas’ largest annual conservationist conference. He’s hoping to sell some of his work.

“Anybody who’s here feels like it’s OK to be here,” Gibby says of the crowded convention hall.

Gibby admits to having had a tough time making ends meet during the pandemic. The sculpture artist from Utah has seven children to care for.

“You’re hearing two years of frustration,” he says.

He travels, selling his work at conventions such as these as well as through galleries and online.

“I work all of them, and I get by. You take away one of those elements, and I don’t get by anymore,” he says.

Is the worst really over?

Michael Simpson, whose Houston-area family taxidermy business lost around one-third of its business at the start of the pandemic, is among the hopeful, the corps of the cautiously optimistic.

We found Simpson at the Dallas Safari Club convention, meeting face to face with potential customers.

Simpson says hopefully that he believes the worst of the business interruptions and lockdowns are finally behind us.

“Meeting face to face and talking to the customers is a heck of a lot better than online … you just don’t get near the volume,” he says.

That same feeling of guarded optimism, of wanting the show to go on, could be found on the Katy Trail, where amid Sunday morning’s cold, misty haze, the trail bustled with runners, rollerblading enthusiasts and leisurely strollers.

The great escape

At the height of the pandemic, when the city was all but shut down and residents were searching for ways to get out of the house, outdoor exercise offered an escape. For Rodney and Gena Lamb, that trend has continued well into the second year of COVID-19.

The couple, who live in downtown Dallas and work in financial services, made sure to pause the workout being tracked on their Apple Watch. They use exercise as a form of protection from the virus.

“Look how many more people are out on the trail, and I think it’s because of COVID,” Rodney said. “It’s making people more conscious, health-wise. I think that’s a good thing.”

Other than the dozens of miles per week they now routinely log, the Lambs said their lives have for the most part returned to normal. They wear masks in crowded areas, but not while exercising on the trail. That time with nature, away from reminders of the COVID-19, is their way of combating pandemic fatigue.

Even as COVID-19 cases surge, any concern felt at the beginning of the pandemic has since eased. “Personally, I’m not affected by it,” Rodney said. “I just follow the rules.”

Kim Noltemy, the president and CEO of Dallas Symphony Orchestra, shares the concerns of Rodney and Gena Lamb and vows to keep them safe—while also making sure people like the Lambs can come to the Meyerson Symphony Center if and when they want to.

Noltemy long ago instituted backstage precautions for testing the musicians and the staff, but this past weekend, she went even further: The DSO will now require those who attend its shows to provide proof of vaccination, or, failing that, to submit to an on-site COVID test—for free.

The DSO has gradually increased its crowd size from 100 to 200 to 500 to 70% of its 2,000-plus capacity.

“Our intention is to have the safest environment we can and to have people feel comfortable,” says Noltemy, who adds with a weary sigh: “We’re doing everything we can to avoid a shutdown.”

Because, like millions of other Americans weary of navigating the COVID seas, the last thing she wants is a shutdown reminiscent of 2020. And the best way to avoid the “L” word—lockdown, which no one wants—is to follow the philosophy of the late Warren Zevon, who in his ballad “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” issued a warning: “Don’t let us get stupid, all right?”

“Just make us be brave,” Zevon wrote, “and make us play nice. And let us be together tonight.”

But as Noltemy says so movingly, part of what adds to the feeling of being “COVID numb” is how making us play nice simply to be together tonight is so much harder than anyone imagined.

The schoolyard challenge

The feeling of hoping we play nice as a way of combating the ongoing weariness is felt most strongly in the nation’s schools, where, of course, children are involved.

Families have slowly found their own rhythms these last two years. But the recent surge in positive cases due to the omicron variant in North Texas happening simultaneously as students return to school is throwing many off-balance.

For Sandra Roman, the start of the new semester does not cause her fear—she’s used to that—but instead renews questions and uncertainty that were ever present at the start of the school year.

Is Roman, the parent of an 8th-grader at Thomas J. Rusk Middle School in Dallas, prepared to have students back on campus? Can the school remain fully staffed amid the omicron surge?

“Are they ready to handle five, six cases?” said Roman, 43. “What is going to happen then also if we’re going to return to virtual? If this gets out of control like it is, what is the school or district going to do?”

Such questions alone have a way of making her feel numb. A resigned Roman sees it as something everyone is dealing with.

She tries to find solace in believing that this will not be her family’s reality forever. For now, she sends her daughter to school knowing the 13-year-old will wear a mask throughout the day because she’s already been sick with COVID-19.

Her daughter, Marley, is back into her routine at school though now the teen remains alert, distancing from classmates when she sees someone coughing and washing her hands multiple times a day.

In the end, it comes down to one thing.

“We will move past this,” Roman says, almost as a mantra to herself. “We’ll get forward.”

The Zen of coping

Blocks away from the Meyerson, the feeling of numbness mixed with wary optimism was building in Victory Park. There, tucked away in a quiet corner of Brewed + Pressed, Robel Eyob sat in front of a sprawl of books and his laptop. He was one of the few customers setting up camp at the coffee shop on Sunday.

As a second-year medical resident at a North Texas hospital, Eyob has seen the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. His only escape from lockdown were his shifts at the hospital.

“Two years ago, you couldn’t get out, you had to be super-cognizant of people around you,” he said.

Overall, things have gotten better, he said. The medical and science communities know more about the virus and what’s needed to prevent transmission, like vaccines and adequate masking.

It’s those preventative strategies that allow Eyob to feel safe working at a coffee shop or going out to eat at a restaurant. And it’s the little acts of human connection, which help him build resilience going into the third year of the pandemic, that he says he’ll never take for granted again.

“To be around the crowds, to mingle, to be in a different place not by yourself, that helps a lot. Even mental health-wise, that helps a lot,” he said.

And, of course, going to a sporting event also helps, at least in terms of offering an escape. But people are also wary of courting worry as part of the bargain of rooting for their favorite teams. It’s fair to say that AT&T Stadium and other sports venues are nowhere near as strict as the Meyerson or The Music Hall at Fair Park.

Those who watch sports on television have noticed for months that the Dallas Cowboys are routinely selling out a stadium with more than 93,000 seats. In addition to the absence of social distancing, it’s easy to tell that most in attendance are not wearing masks.

And, of course, perhaps more than any other discipline, the sports world is awash in controversy over athletes who refuse to get vaccinated, while dozens of college and professional athletes continue to test positive for COVID-19. That, too, makes the rest of us numb.

Cowboys wide receivers CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper unleashed a torrent of criticism for showing up at a recent Dallas Mavericks game without wearing masks. Cooper missed two games earlier this season after testing positive for COVID.

People love sports, or they wouldn’t be showing up at sold-out Cowboys games, but for the fan like Alex Hawkins, who believes yes, the show must go on—but who also fears getting sick—it’s one more case of navigating a COVID minefield.

As Hawkins says from his perch high atop the floor of the Mansfield gym, “I know it is what it is. I know it’s not the new normal. But I wish it was gone.”


COVID fatigue: Are you among the “vaxxed & done”?


©2022 The Dallas Morning News.
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Here, the ‘COVID numb’ are vaxxed, vexed and trying to make it work (2022, January 17)
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