It's been two years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and while some Long Islanders are back to their pre-pandemic lives, others say they're taking a slower more cautious approach. Newsday's Shari Einhorn reports.  Credit: Howard Schnapp; Photo credit: Eric Seda; Matthew Hickerson; Xu Zhang

One woman, heartbroken by the loss of her brother and nephew to COVID-19, said she is determined to focus on self-care and spread joy to others. A fledgling restaurant owner worries about how future variants will impact his business partner, still recovering from COVID-19, and the steady flow of customers needed to keep them afloat.

Now, two years after Long Island's first COVID-19 case, there's hope — yet some apprehension — about moving toward a new normal, local residents told Newsday.

Perry Halkitis, a public health psychologist and dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey, said people are only now starting to see COVID-19's physical and emotional toll and how it has impacted every aspect of their lives.

"It’s almost like we've come through this cloud," he said. "People are beginning to emerge, and it's going to take a long time for people to find some sense of normalcy. It is like living through a war. It is like living through a disaster."

Halkitis said in order to move on, people need to acknowledge their anxiety and uncertainty.

"We don't know what the future holds, but at the same time, they should not allow those feelings to overwhelm their lives," he said. "What we've learned is that infections spread very quickly, these viral infections, these respiratory infections, and that we should be prepared as a people to act quickly and effectively."

Xu Zhang at her home on Thursday in Syosset.

Xu Zhang at her home on Thursday in Syosset. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Xu Zhang, Syosset

Zhang, 42, is buoyed by the sharp decline in new COVID-19 cases, but still nervous about what the future might bring.

"I still feel insecure to be honest … ," said Zhang, an economics professor. "Hopefully we won’t have another wave."

Zhang and her husband, 5-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son are hoping to travel somewhere by plane for vacation this summer, but "we haven’t made any reservations yet because of the uncertainty."

Last year, the family canceled a planned trip to Maine once the delta variant sent case numbers higher.

"We used to travel a lot during the summer," she said. "We didn’t travel at all in the last two years."

They’re planning a short car trip for spring break, figuring that’s safer than traveling by plane.

Although the state school mask mandate was lifted, her children will still wear masks in school until it’s clear the decline in cases will continue, and they’ll continue to not eat inside restaurants.

"At least within the near future, we’ll try to still avoid crowded gatherings and have more outdoor exploration, as opposed to parties or getting together in a big crowd," she said.

Part of the reason is that her 70-year-old mother lives with them. All the adults in the family have booster shots, and the kids are fully vaccinated, but "we want to protect her. We want to use an abundance of caution."

Even after COVID-19 is no longer considered a pandemic, Zhang still plans to wear masks in the winter, for flu prevention.

She doesn’t foresee many other long-term impacts on her life, but worries about the effects of her kids’ increased time on electronic devices, which began during the pandemic with remote learning and continues with many assignments done via computer.

"It’s very easy for them to browse other websites when they are supposed to be doing schoolwork or homework," she said.

Eric Seda at his restaurant Capicu on Thursday in Hauppauge.

Eric Seda at his restaurant Capicu on Thursday in Hauppauge. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Eric Seda, Brentwood

Seda and his brother Angelo Bravo were scheduled to open Capicu restaurant in Hauppauge on March 16, 2020, the day then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo banned in-restaurant dining.

They finally opened the Latin American restaurant in February 2021 and were doing well, until the recent omicron wave led to a drop in customers.

Bravo lost a lung to COVID-19 weeks after the restaurant’s opening and is now homebound and hooked up to an oxygen tank, hoping for a transplant.

"It’s very sad, because we worked on the project together, and now he’s not able to enjoy it while it’s growing," Seda said.

Business is increasing again, but Seda, 44, said the unpredictability of the pandemic leaves him on edge.

"You almost have to live with some type of fear that something could go down any day, another surge, another time when people just are not comfortable coming back out, and it will impact the business all over again," he said. "If we have another big wave, it could put us out of business."

Seda is at the restaurant five days a week, but he tries to avoid being around too many people. He and his brother are vaccinated, but he worries about infecting Bravo.

"It’s very nerve-wracking because anybody can have it," he said. "You’re coming in contact with so many different people. If I caught it and brought it home to him — that’s a very big worry."

Seda also worries about bringing up his 1-year-old daughter during a pandemic, that "she could possibly catch it one day and get really sick."

After seeing his brother stricken by COVID-19 and seeing friends die from the disease, Seda said he’s now "a lot more grateful for the things that I’ve had and the things I have, and I think I’ll be more appreciative for the things to come moving forward."

Joy Francis at the ICU in Plainview Hospital on Thursday.

Joy Francis at the ICU in Plainview Hospital on Thursday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Joy Francis, Bethpage

Francis said she is determined to live up to her name after seeing the damage COVID-19 can do — both at work and at home. She lost her beloved brother and nephew to the disease in 2020 and nursed her husband back to health after he fell ill last year.

As a ward clerk in Plainview Hospital's intensive care unit, Francis also had a front-row seat to the heartbreak and horror of COVID-19 as she and others tried to connect isolated patients to their families.

"I have been focusing on self-care," said Francis, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1991. "I read books to help myself, and I did seek spiritual advice. I don’t take life for granted any more. Your life can be changed in a second."

The mom of three grown children said she also relies on the power of prayer and has learned to use her internal "remote control" to stop the negative thoughts and pain.

And Francis has a lot to look forward to now that COVID-19 cases have dropped and she can get out more. Her son Jordan is getting ready to graduate from Villanova University, her family will travel to Jamaica for a niece’s wedding, and she is starting to resume attending church services in person.

She only recently started eating in restaurants again and is looking forward to socializing with friends and colleagues.

"I look at life in a more constructive way," she said. "I want to do things that are positive and uplifting to others … I want to leave a mark on this Earth. I just don’t know what it is yet."

Christopher Appoldt, of Greenlawn, runs his own photography business.

Christopher Appoldt, of Greenlawn, runs his own photography business. Credit: CHRIS APPOLDT

Christopher Appoldt, Greenlawn

When the pandemic hit, Appoldt learned to adapt in his home and work life. Instead of traveling for vacations, his family went on camping trips, where they could avoid hotels and busy areas. Appoldt said his 9-year-old daughter never pushed back about wearing a mask or taking other precautions to avoid COVID-19.

"We emphasized the importance keeping herself and her family and friends safe," he said.

A commercial photographer, Appoldt, 53, found himself taking more headshots and marketing images as weddings and other large events were canceled due to the pandemic — amounting to about $20,000 worth of work.

While not all of those jobs were rescheduled, many charities and other organizations moved to having outdoor functions. Appoldt said he is now seeing more activities resume.

"People are learning how to keep themselves and clients safe," he said. "We had a wonderful day yesterday at New York Tech in Old Westbury, and it was so nice to see the students’ smiles."

The family recently took its first trip since the pandemic, hopping on a plane to Puerto Rico.

"That was great to spend some time on the beach, swim in the pool and walk in the rainforest," he said.

Appoldt said they are looking forward to spending more time with family and friends in the coming months.

"I think we learned a lot about our family as a unit and what we are able to accomplish in a time of crisis," he said. "We certainly learned about caring and looking out for our neighbors and elderly family members, and found out we’re really capable of quite a lot when we’re asked to stand up for both our family and our community."

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