Updated: Jun 27
Keys, wallet, phone, mask — for over a year those were the words people muttered quietly to themselves before leaving the house.
Now, they discover masks crumpled up and forgotten in every corner of the house, serving as not-so-distant memories of a monstrous and monotonous pandemic.
But after two years and millions of vaccinations later, after months of masking, distancing and waiting for a light to appear at the end of the tunnel, the world is returning to some semblance of normalcy.
The Centers for Disease Control relaxed its mask recommendations at the end of February. Data shows 65% of Americans are fully vaccinated against the virus and despite a spike in omicron cases early in the year, hospitalizations are dropping around the country, leading many schools, businesses and governments to relax protocols.
Belmont, which has required masks on campus since August 2020, dropped its mandate two weeks ago after significant reductions in case numbers on campus and in Nashville.
“I am hopeful that as students start to realize that they’ve lived through a once-in-a-lifetime — hopefully — pandemic, that they will see that they’ve learned to be resilient in ways that you can’t learn outside of facing a difficult challenge,” said Krystal Huesmann, director of Belmont Health Services.
The decision to move to a mask optional policy came just three weeks after Belmont reported a pandemic-high 121 cases among students, faculty and staff.
After a sharp decline, that number is down to just four new cases for the week of March 6, according to data updated Monday.
The university continues to offer testing and vaccinations to the Belmont community, and is advising students based on the latest available information from local health officials and the CDC.
“They’re using their best judgment in wanting to be wise and wanting to be discerning,” said senior nursing student Sarah Stevens. “If it’s safe to be 6 feet apart and not have a mask on, that’s the ideal situation.”
It wasn’t so long ago that social distancing was a new phenomenon and businesses put markings on the floor to denote the space.
Saturday is the two-year anniversary of the day Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee declared a State of Emergency; it’s hard not to see that crumpled mask on the floor of your car and look back on the past 24 months.
In that time, the world reported nearly half a billion cases and over 6 million people died.
Eating at restaurants became a discussion where families would weigh the pros and cons, instead of being a stress-free activity.
The phrase “Zoom university” got its own page on Urban Dictionary.
Reminders of the pandemic are everywhere.
And while the pandemic isn’t affecting students in the same way it did two years ago — vaccines and a wealth of new scientific knowledge remedied that — COVID-19 isn’t going away.
It’s becoming endemic.
“Where a virus becomes endemic, it evolves into a form that may still be contagious, but without causing major disruptions like we’ve seen to people’s lives because it doesn’t cause the serious illness or hospitalization to the majority of people,” said Huesmann.
“We see less transmission and much less COVID-19 related hospitalization and deaths, which means we learn to live with the virus.”
Belmont has quickly followed Nashville’s lead in returning to something resembling the days of old. Students are going to live concerts again — both on and off campus — and the McWhorter Hall lawn is as packed as it was in 2019.
“Seeing people’s faces again, seeing people more energetic in the caf in classes and on campus, it has made a big impact. And I think for the better. We’re seeing normalcy again. People are connecting like they have never connected before,” said senior Artem Smith.
March 2022 looks very different from March 2021 and after two years of change, loss and isolation, the world is reaching the light at the end of the tunnel.
Keys, wallet, phone, mask — it’s a tiresome little routine the world has gotten used to, and one it will never forget.
PHOTO: “Masks optional” signage in Belmont’s Johnson Center. Sarah Maninger / Belmont Vision
This article was written by Sarah Maninger and Federico Pravettoni.