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Pandemic brought out the best, and sometimes the worse

Much of life as we once knew it will return to California when the state reopens Tuesday. But everything will not be the same.

The pandemic will leave lasting marks on society, commerce, people’s behavior and maybe even their psyches. Yes, physical-distancing requirements will disappear at many places and fully vaccinated people will be able to go almost everywhere without the much-vilified masks.

But a good number of folks will continue to work from home, order takeout rather than dine inside, and stream movies rather than go to cinemas. After spending time with themselves, they might even have become more self-reflective and taken up meditation.

When they do go out, it may be to volunteer more, to indulge in things they couldn’t do for a year or splurge on items they can afford with savings built up while staying home.

And when they go out, they may or may not wear masks.

“Definitely not,” said Carlsbad resident Tony Poet when asked if he planned on wearing a mask after June 15.

A college professor and cancer survivor, Poet said he hasn’t been vaccinated because he’s “already got enough junk in my body.” His lifestyle didn’t change much during the pandemic, he said, other than not going out for the occasional meetups and cocktails with friends. Poet followed the protocols and didn’t have a problem with masks, but said he’s tired of them now and was frustrated by the ever-changing rules.

“‘We’re open, we’re closed, you can eat outside, you can’t eat inside,’” he said.

Poet had his first in-person meeting with colleagues last week, and said everybody was asked to social distance and wear masks.

“But as soon as lunch gets there, everybody takes off their masks and we all group around one table where we’re no more than a foot and a half apart,” he said. “So it’s like, what’s the purpose?”

Phil Phillips owns the Carlsbad bookstore Farenheit 451 and said he plans to continue wearing a mask after June 15 because he’s 72 and isn’t vaccinated.

“I started wearing masks right from the get-go,” he said. “It just seemed like a smart thing to do.”

While his own life didn’t change much during the outbreak, Phillips said he saw a dramatic change in his customers. About 65 percent of his customers were young people before the pandemic, and now they make up about 90 percent and are mostly women. He suspects his older customers still may be afraid to go out.

Phillips said he kept his shop open on the down-low during the shutdown, and friends would bring him home-made masks before they became readily availability. He gave them to costumers when they walked in, and said only one ever yelled at him.

The state will drop its mask mandate next week, but Phillips said he’s still contemplating whether to require them at his shop.

He occasionally still loses customers because of the rule. As he spoke, a couple without masks walked into his shop, and Phillips politely asked them to put them on. The woman said she would not because she couldn’t breathe when wearing them.

“We won’t be back,” her male companion said, walking out the door.

As the end of the 15-month ordeal seems to be approaching, many experiences already are just fading memories. Some were fleeting but agonizing, like the long lines to get into stores. Others were actually enjoyable, like the weeks of open freeways with no traffic.

Then again, so many people were driving recklessly that a county health official pleaded with motorists to slow down because the last thing hospitals needed at the time was a surge of crash victims in emergency rooms.

The pandemic sometimes brought out the worst in people, but also the best.

Most everybody remembers seeing empty store shelves in the early days of the pandemic, as people in a panic cleared out aisles of toilet paper and other essential goods without a thought to others.

But then there was Jonny Blue, a physical therapist who stood on a median at Encinitas Boulevard and El Camino Real one Saturday morning in March 2020 holding a sign that said, “Share your toilet paper.” Drivers passing by handed him rolls while others in need picked some up.

A driver hands Encinitas resident Jonny Blue, 33, a roll of toilet paper.

In this photo from March 2020, a driver hands a roll of toilet paper to Encinitas resident Jonny Blue, who said he started the exchange after learning that friend of his, who has children, was unable to buy toilet paper because people had bought out the supply at local stores.

(Hayne Palmour IV/Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some opportunist bought up large amounts of hand sanitizers to sell at an inflated profit, and soon Purell bottles that normally sold for $35 began showing up on Amazon for $130.

Others saw an opportunity to do good. With bars closed in April 2020, more than a dozen San Diego distilleries shifted their production line from spirits to hand sanitizer.

That same month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people wear face-coverings, and soon came reports of companies and individuals jacking up the price of N95 respirator masks that were in short supply and needed by health care workers.

But in San Diego, hundreds of volunteers from the Rock Church pitched in to repair aging elastic bands on 300,000 N95 masks so they could be used by health care providers.

The pandemic seemed to slip slowly into San Diego with small precautionary steps. Movie theaters began spacing audience members several seats apart, and people were told to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, but not bother wearing a mask.

The first local COVID-19 case was reported March 9, 2020. The scope of the pandemic became clear when the National Basketball Association suspended the 2020-21 season two days later.

Then on March 16, San Diego County health officials ordered restaurants to serve only takeout or delivery and bars to close at midnight, ending St. Patrick’s Day celebrations planned for the next day. Passengers arriving on cruise ships in San Diego were quarantined, and a statewide stay-home order was issued March 19. Three days later, a man in his early 70s became the first county resident to die of COVID-19.

Essential businesses stayed open, but many saw fewer customers. The direction to stay at least 6 feet away from people was especially challenging for certain professionals.

Bonsall resident Rick Wilbert, a chiropractor who practices in Oceanside, said many of his older patients stopped coming to regular appointments. He practiced safe protocols with the patients who did come, but it wasn’t always easy.

“The worst part is probably constantly reminding patients to wear their masks,” he said. “Most patients were great about it, but you always have to be thinking about it.”

With no clear answer about how long the outbreak would last, people held onto concert tickets and looked forward to summer events with what now seems like naive optimism.

One by one, what had been annual traditions dropped off calendars. The pandemic canceled Padres games, Summer Pops, Comic-Con International, the Over the Line tournament, concerts in community parks and amphitheaters, Tiki Oasis, beer festivals, the San Diego County Fair and, well, everything.

But at least there were still the beaches. For a while, anyway. By March, several cities had closed access to the coast.

“It sucked,” said surfer Scott Innes of Encinitas.

As he took his board off his bicycle at Swami’s Beach last week, Innes recalled the day the beaches closed.

“I was actually in this parking lot when the cops showed up,” he said. “The lifeguards kicked everyone out of the water, and the cops cautioned-taped the parking lot.”

He and his friend Mitch King of Oceanside said the shutdown seemed unnecessary and even unhealthy for people who find peace of mind by going to the beach.

King, who works for a surfboard manufacturer, said demand for boards has skyrocketed since the shutdown was lifted. Innes said he thinks the shutdown and lack of sports at the time left people looking for other activities, and he estimates the number of people in the water has doubled over pre-pandemic times..

Hansen’s Surfboards co-owner Josh Hansen recalls the shutdown as a difficult time for surfers.

“I think a large percentage of the surf community was caught off guard and inevitably very upset by those closures,” he said.

Seaside Reef in Cardiff State beach sits empty on April 5, 2020.

In this photo from April 2020, the parking lot and sand are empty at Seaside Reef in Cardiff State Beach because of a shutdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

(K.C. Alfred/K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The surf shop is celebrating its 60th anniversary in Encinitas, and Hansen said the business was shut down for about seven weeks.

“Everybody was going stir crazy and frustrated,” he said.

The beach closures did more than rob surfers of a favorite activity. Hansen said it took away people’s sanctuary when it was needed most.

“When that’s taken away in the most trying of times, that’s tough,” he said. “It was definitely a point where it had gone too far. Everybody had been locked up, there was an immense amount of stress, and surfing is a place where people go to find peace and presence.”

Some people who may have been going stir crazy focused their energy on finding ways to help others.

Interfaith Community Services CEO Greg Anglea said the Escondido homeless service provider saw a surge in volunteers and donations during the pandemic.

“Thank goodness we did, because the demand spiked so significantly,” he said.

Interfaith Community Services saw the biggest food drive in the nonprofit’s 42-year history when North Coast Church donated almost 100,000 pounds of nonperishable food in April, enough to distribute through October.

The new volunteers often had an eye-opening, life-changing experience through their work at the nonprofit, Anglea said.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand the inequality and the level of need that exists,” he said. “It can be easy, if someone doesn’t have direct experience and they’re living an otherwise normal life, to not see how many challenges people have around poverty and hunger and a lot of other things going on.

“The pandemic really opened some people’s eyes to that, and for a lot of people, when their eyes are open they want to help,” Anglea continued. “They want to do something. And that will absolutely make a lasting, long-term positive effect.”

People found various ways to help others during the pandemic. Hundreds of home seamstresses joined groups to create face masks. A Vista couple opened a pantry on their driveway, although it recently was shut down for code violations. People throughout the county, including a local pair of 91-year-old twin sisters, began holding daily cheer sessions for health care workers.

Joyce Kriesmer, 91, bangs a colander as she and her twin sister Jackie Voskamp.

In this photo from April 2020, Joyce Kriesmer bangs a colander as she and her twin sister Jackie Voskamp participate in a daily afternoon pep rally with other seniors standing on their balconies at La Jolla Village.

(Hayne Palmour IV/Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Children’s birthdays became drive-by celebrations. Working from their Camp Pendleton home, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Justin Edwards, his wife, Ryne Galiszewski-Edwards, and their four children made 1,200 masks for medical and military personnel, police and firefighter units, jails, nursing home staff members and others.

Alan Gin, an economics professor at the University of San Diego and a member of the school’s Economic Research Center, said he thinks many of the changes sparked by the pandemic are here to last.

“We’re going to have a substantial number of people continue to work from home,” he said. “Some workers like that, and I think they’re going to want to continue. And that’ll have some impact.”

Telecommuting for work could have a rippling effect on other businesses, with lunch crowds becoming smaller at eateries and clothing shops selling fewer dress shirts, he said.

Gin also expects restaurants to continue offering takeout and delivery services, which many customers have embraced.

He’s worried that more people could become homeless because they won’t be able to pay back rent after eviction moratoriums end, but he also expects a bump in the economy from people who saved money by staying home and now are ready to splurge. He expects San Diego to benefit from what economists are calling the “COVID piggy bank” because vacations will be coming to the city.

“If I were to make a prediction about the trajectory after June 15, there will be a big surge, and then it’s going to tail off, and we’ll be slightly below where we were in terms of restaurant attendance, movie attendance, and traffic on roads,” he said.

Jeffrey Zlotnik, CEO and co-founder of the Dharma Bum Temple in University Heights, said the pandemic shutdown forced people to spend more time alone, something that might have left them uncomfortable.

“People were forced to have to go inside themselves, and that can be very scary,” he said, adding that attendance began to grow in the online meditation classes held by the Buddhist temple.

“I think what we’ve seen is a definite increase in the amount of people who are seeking and searching for something to keep them sane, mentally and emotionally, during this time,” Zlotnik said. “It’s created this kind of condition where people are forced to be stuck at home. And from this meditation lens, it’s an opportunity to practice isolation and be with yourself.”

Like restaurant takeout, streaming movies and telecommuting at work, Zlotnik said he expects the online classes will continue. Having classes online also has greatly expanded the temple’s reach, and Zlotnik said one recent live class was attended by a man who logged on from Ireland.

“Fifteen months ago, someone from Ireland would not have been joining our meditation class,” he said. “It’s a long commute.”