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People eat at Aba on South Congress in November 2020. (Leslee Bassman)

Zilker-area resident Ashley Bowling said she's been participating in outdoor gym classes since the fall, recently shifting to indoor sessions with mask wearers at Castle Hill Fitness.

"It feels really good to be getting back into it because it's just not the same when you're (working out) by yourself in your living room," Bowling said. "It's a step toward normalcy."

However, not everyone shares Bowling's excitement, with some touting a bit of apprehension as things return to something resembling pre-pandemic life.

South Austinite Barbara Castro said she's concerned to possibly go back to in-person employment after working remotely for months. She said she not only fears contracting COVID-19 but also driving in traffic as the area's typical congestion subsided during the pandemic when residents stayed home. "I've been so used to working from home that a commute of 20 or 30 minutes just seems daunting right now," she said.

Castro also voiced concern about paying for her young son's after-school childcare, a luxury she provided in the remote workplace.

Making the transition

Dr. Mike Brooks, a psychologist in private practice in Austin, says almost everyone is going to be feeling a certain level of anxiety, nervousness and self consciousness about returning to social and business situations.

"This transition will be bumpy but we're all going to be on this bumpy ride together," Brooks said. "There's some comfort in knowing there's nothing wrong or bad or defective about us. We're going to struggle a bit as we return to normal."

Psychologist Dr. Mike Brooks says many people will feel anxious, nervous and/or self-conscious about returning to social and work situations after the past year of quarantine.

After a year of staying in, avoiding traffic, sanitizing excessively and wearing masks, the transitional period the state is in where people are not required to wear masks and social distancing practices have eased per the governor's order, it can be intimidating for some to imagine a return to pre-pandemic life. Brooks suggested easing back into social situations by first opting for a restaurant visit as opposed to a larger scale gathering such as a concert. Even for Brooks, who received the COVID-19 vaccine, dining in a crowded restaurant recently "felt a little weird."

"When you learn how to swim, you don't just go into the deep end; you start with the shallow water first," Brooks said. "Challenge yourself a little bit but don't stretch too far all at once."

During the past year, society has been so sensitized and conditioned to be fearful and worried, he said. He proposed individuals maintain a social distance from others at first, before getting more comfortable being closer, and advised those fearful to talk about the transition with friends and family.

"As we are slowly acclimating back, the experiences will be self-reinforcing—the fears will naturally recede as we go out," Brooks said. "Trust the process."

A hunger for normalcy

Back at Castle Hill Fitness, General Manager Michele Melkerson-Granryd said she's begun to see a gradual uptick in the gym class sizes, although the facility still practices social distancing, mask wearing and walled workout pods that provide single exercise spaces. The facility was closed for three months at the start of the pandemic before offering online, virtual workouts, but now she says people want to get back to working out with their buddies.

Castle Hill Fitness General Manager Michele Melkerson-Granryd leads a spin class at the program's Westlake facility. She said she's begun to see a gradual uptick in the gym class sizes as the state opens up. (Leslee Bassman)

Melkerson-Granryd said some members have a goal of getting back to their pre-pandemic body while those recently vaccinated are feeling safer and ready for a full gym routine. She said those returning to an exercise routine should do so gradually.

Her advice: "For anybody who did take a lot of time off, to not beat themselves up too much because there's nothing we can do about it now. And to be kind as they come back. Their body will remember what it's like to be in better shape but it does take time. Be patient and work with somebody who will motivate you and give you the challenges you need at the right time."

Austin Bergstrom airport before the pandemic.

Keith Waldon, who owns local travel agency Departure Lounge, said clients continued to travel during the year but did so by taking private transportation and staying in private accommodations or resorts with standalone units.

However, since November, he's seen "a dramatic increase" in general bookings and short term travel, folks wanting to depart in two or three weeks, said Waldon, adding that air travel and hotel stays are also on the rise. He attributed the upswing to recent vaccinations.

"Once people get their second shot, they're ready to head to the airport," Waldon said.

Recently, his team has been selling domestic trips and vacations to Mexico, the Caribbean and Africa. Waldon said he's been booking a few cruises for late this year but mostly for 2022 and 2023, with the pandemic's flexible cancellation policies extending into the future.

"People have just been stuck at home for so long (that) they really, really want to get out there," he said. "And with the vaccination, they're feeling comfortable to do it."


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