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Vaccinated Long Islanders are reclaiming pre-pandemic lives

Jeffrey and Claudia Stern rooted for the Mets

Jeffrey and Claudia Stern rooted for the Mets in person in April after getting vaccinated. "I love baseball, and going to the game made us feel more normal," Claudia says. Credit: Cheslea Stern

In recent weeks, Wendy DeAngelis has done what she had considered unthinkable last year.

Since receiving the second dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in mid-March and waiting two weeks for the full immunity to kick in, the Port Washington resident has sat on a bench at Manorhaven Beach, walked on its sandy shore, browsed a local boutique’s artifacts and hosted a friend for lunch inside her home. And, much to her delight, she "felt totally relaxed" during her first visit to the hair salon since last May.

"That was huge," said DeAngelis, 60.

But what she described as "incredible and just wonderful" was the hug she shared with her sister.

More than a year after doing their best to minimize the risk of catching COVID-19, including sanitizing and washing their hands, staying mostly within the confines of their homes and socializing outdoors with few relatives and friends — yet remaining at least six feet apart from one another and wearing masks — Long Island’s vaccinated older residents are gradually, and happily, reclaiming their pre-pandemic lives.

Heartened by the immunity afforded by COVID-19 vaccines, they are once again wheeling shopping carts down supermarket aisles — instead of relying on grocery personnel for deliveries and curbside pickup services — and they are again hosting family dinners and playing indoors with their grandchildren, as opposed to limiting their gatherings to FaceTime and Zoom.

"Now, with the vaccine, there’s a comfort that we may be able to get back to normal," DeAngelis said.

In many instances, seniors are taking their cues — about what activities the vaccinations safely allow them to resume — from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And according to the CDC website (nwsdy.li/CDCvaccinatedFAQ), fully vaccinated individuals can return to some of the activities that the pandemic stopped them from doing. The CDC list includes gathering indoors with one another without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart, as well as getting together with "unvaccinated people of any age from one other household," as long as none of those individuals or their cohabitants has an "increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19."

Shot of confidence

The growing numbers of vaccinated Long Islanders have also made seniors more confident to return to their pre-pandemic errands and social activities.

As of April 25, in Nassau County, about 71.5% of residents who are 65 and older and 45.5% who are 18 and older have been fully vaccinated; in Suffolk County, 67.1%.6 of residents who are 65 and older and 38.1% of those who are 18 years and older have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC (nwsdy.li/CDCcovidtracker).

Still, yearlong anxieties about COVID-19 and pandemic-dodging practices can be hard to shake entirely.

"Some people have run to the bar, the gym or a club, but it’s really about what makes you feel safe," said Cheryl Mchunguzi, a clinical social worker with a counseling practice called Metamorphosis, LMSW, PC, in Merrick.

People need to recognize, Mchunguzi said, that they are affected by something that was beyond their control. The pandemic "co-opted lives," driving people to heed the advice of officials and experts to withdraw to their homes to survive. Further compounding coronavirus-inflicted trauma, she said, was the stress that people may have had before the pandemic.

For those fully vaccinated individuals experiencing residual anguish, the West Babylon resident suggests taking "incremental steps" in returning to the people, places and activities that had made them happy before the pandemic and make them feel whole again.

Mchunguzi advises, for example, easing into dining indoors with fully vaccinated friends by first spending time with them outside, beginning with a walk and then lunch on a park bench.

"The activities that made you happy and excited about living may just need to be done a little differently until you feel safe," Mchunguzi said. "Understand that this was an unusual situation and we have to be kind to ourselves in healing and getting back to feeling secure."

'I could relax'

So even though the CDC allows fully vaccinated individuals to travel domestically without a pre- or post-travel test, and to forgo quarantining after domestic or international trips, DeAngelis isn’t rushing to book a flight.

"I’d need the world to open up a bit more," she said, thoughtfully adding that she might consider such a venture in a year. "We’re not yet out of the woods, and I’m deeply, deeply concerned about what’s happening in other states, like Florida."

But as the owner of the 18-year-old Music Together with Music and Me, a Queens-based child-centric business with five part-time employees, including DeAngelis, and in a nod to the increases in people getting jabs to their arms, she plans to offer some outdoor classes in Queens parks. Yet, Zoom sessions will still represent the lion’s share of the instruction. Before COVID-19, DeAngelis rented space in Queens, including in houses of worship and karate studios.

"Working parents love the virtual Zooms at night, but I also think that people would like to see each other," DeAngelis said.

Although her fully vaccinated husband, Stephen DeAngelis, 63, said that he still gets a bit unsettled when others don’t follow a store’s floor arrows that promote physical distancing, the shots have largely provided him with peace of mind not only when he grocery shops but in his theatrical work.

Months before the inoculations began, DeAngelis, a producer and casting director, said he was involved in preplanning his latest coproduced show, "Reflections of Who's Next." Streaming from April 30 to May 2, the Rock Project production features vocalists and musicians performing Who songs together at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts — but not before a live audience.

Although masks, shields and sanitizers abounded at the venue and each performer had a personally designated camera for close-ups, the advent of the vaccines imbued the rehearsals and taping with a "safe haven" atmosphere, DeAngelis said.

"I could relax, because with all the moving parts, the last thing you need to worry about is COVID," he said. Discussions are underway to create additional original concerts showcasing the music of rock icons and to present them as streamed events and, "as soon as live audience numbers are allowed to increase," live shows.

Mother's Day gathering

Courtesy of Pfizer’s two doses, Mchunguzi’s husband, the Rev. Saba Mchunguzi, 70, the pastor of the Unity of Huntington, a church in Huntington Station, has returned to his pre-pandemic shopping habits. No longer mindful about the amount of time he spends in each store or the number of errands he runs in a day, Mchunguzi said that he shops whenever the need arises, including patronizing multiple stores, one right after the other.

"Before, I had a major concern about going out, contracting COVID and bringing it home to my wife," he said, noting that with his wife, adult son and adult daughter having now received their second doses, the family plans to get together for Mother’s Day — which they hadn’t done last year.

The pastor, who conducted funerals before getting vaccinated, credited the inoculations with making him now "available and willing" to provide pastoral counseling, which he had previously declined to do, and officiate at christenings and weddings. But he will still play it safe and follow CDC guidelines requiring face coverings.

Hoping to inspire unvaccinated congregants to follow his example, the Rev. Mchunguzi has directed the church member who makes community announcements at the start of Sunday services to tell worshippers "to consider taking the vaccines so that they and their loved ones will stay safe and healthy."

Before receiving their shots, Floral Park residents Claudia Stern, 65, an attorney with the New York State Department of Education, and her husband, Jeffrey, 68, a CPA, dined indoors and outdoors with friends, and last summer, with the decline in COVID-19 cases, the couple felt comfortable vacationing in Cancun, Mexico.

But since getting vaccinated, the Sterns have redrawn their line in the sand, shopping at Tanger Outlets Riverhead and going to Citi Field to root for the Mets.

"I love baseball, and going to the game made us feel more normal," Claudia Stern said. "I’m so thankful for the vaccine for allowing us to return to things that we love."

Get vaccinated

New Yorkers 16 and older are now eligible for the vaccine. To find out how to get one, visit covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.

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