It was mid-March of last year when we first heard the news.

There was going to be a shutdown.

But what did that mean? None of us had ever lived through anything like that. What was that even going to entail? How would our lives change, if at all?

Already, events had started to get canceled. Sports games for kids. School. Arts activities. Concerts. Theater shows.

Illinois Is Opening Up TODAY. How Will Your Life Change?Everything was going on hold for a couple of weeks. But it was just going to be a couple of weeks. A month, max. And, hell, it was winter, the weather was terrible anyway, we weren’t going to be going outside as it was. It wasn’t going to be that big of a deal.

Or so we thought.

I remember at the time thinking, “Well, this won’t be so bad. A couple of weeks hanging out at home, working from home, binge-watching shows, and then it’ll all go back to normal.”

I remember betting my friends on when that was going to happen. Most thought it would be by that summer. May, maybe July TOPS.

And those first few months didn’t seem so bad. Sure, there were a lot of events canceled, and people like myself who were working in the arts and entertainment industry had to pivot and do things a lot differently. But it was nice working from home, nice spending time with my son, home-schooling him, nice to not to have to be so many places, to get to just take a break. Soon we were all on TikTok and talking about “Tiger King,” ordering takeout food, and joking about trying to find toilet paper.

And then… about two months in, it really started to set in. This wasn’t ending any time soon. And our lives were not going to be the same.

That was 15 months ago. It’s safe to say that none of our lives is the same as they were back then. We’ve changed in ways we may not discover for a while yet, in the way we look at the world, the way we look at each other, the way we look at ourselves.

Today, Illinois enters Phase 5, which means, according to the Illinois Department of Health, that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.

Outdoor festivals and large gatherings like concerts can also take place, as the new phase means the return of traditional conventions, festivals, and large events without capacity restrictions. Large gatherings of all sizes can resume across all industry settings, and Phase 5 removes requirements that businesses institute mandatory social distancing in seated venues as well as daily health screenings of employees and visitors.

Of course, not everything is going back to 100 percent normal.

The state is recommending masks for unvaccinated persons, as well as all individuals on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation; in transportation hubs, such as airports and train and bus stations; in congregate facilities such as correctional facilities, veterans’ homes, and long-term care facilities, group homes, and residential facilities; and in healthcare settings.

In addition, businesses and venues are being asked to allow for social distancing to the extent possible, especially indoors. Businesses and venues may also continue to put in place additional public health mitigations as they deem appropriate, including requiring face coverings.

So we’re sorta, kinda, almost getting back to normal.

But even when we do, what is normal going to mean?

I’ve had both of my shots, and, according to the timeline, I’m now fully vaccinated.

But my life is very different and the impact of the last 15 months has been substantial, particularly from a financial perspective. My job, my income, at this website depends on advertising revenue, and when nothing is open, when there are no events going on, there’s nothing to advertise. Ergo, things have been rather thin in that department for a while.

My additional employment as a writer likewise depends heavily on public interaction, including book signings and other events, which haven’t been able to take place.

I’m hardly alone. Pretty much everyone in the world of arts, entertainment and leisure — including the bar, restaurant, hotel, event venue, and any other related business — has been hit hard by the last year’s situation. We’ve all been struggling to get by. All of us have had to drastically adjust our lives, and it’s going to still be a struggle to regain that momentum and to get back to even a semblance of what we had prior to covid.

All of us are tentatively starting to swim, waiting to get to where we can comfortably stay afloat and begin to move again. But we’re also cautious about another huge wave crashing down upon us. We’re suspicious when we read about new covid strains rapidly spreading, or see people spewing disinformation and ridiculous conspiracy theories about 5G and microchips, and people refusing vaccines because of some absolutely ludicrous thing they saw on the internet.

We also remember all we’ve seen over the past 15 months. The ebbing and waning of hope. The evolution of seemingly reasonable people into something far from how we would’ve liked to have continued to see them.

How is this going to change that?

The whole tentative steps away from quarantine, away from mitigations, remind me of an old show where people locked themselves away in a bomb shelter, thinking the world outside was under nuclear attack. Eventually, they began to behave horribly, and do things that they never would’ve imagined themselves or others doing. Then, at the end, it was revealed that the world outside was just fine, and they were free to leave the bunker and go back to their normal lives. But what they’d seen and experienced within the bunker changed them so profoundly that even though the world outside hadn’t really changed, they had, and so had their perception of it, and each other.

How is this past 15 months in the bomb shelter going to resonate with us?

Are we going to be able to go back to the way things were?

Are we going to embrace our lives and freedoms and appreciate them all the more, having lost them for a time?

Or are we going to make a few tentative steps out, and realize that maybe isolation wasn’t so bad after all, and actually, it was much more peaceful and preferable?

We’re about to find out.

I hope what we discover is ultimately something good. Something that makes the last 15 months seem, in some way, worth it.

I hope.

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Illinois Is Opening Up TODAY. How Will Your Life Change?
Sean Leary is an author, director, artist, musician, producer and entrepreneur who has been writing professionally since debuting at age 11 in the pages of the Comics Buyers Guide. An honors graduate of the University of Southern California masters program, he has written over 50 books including the best-sellers The Arimathean, Every Number is Lucky to Someone and We Are All Characters.