Sarah Chan is reporting from upstate New York.

SCHOOLS

When NY schools reopened in the fall, each school district had to come up with an individual plan to meet CDC guidelines and submit it to the governor, so details vary from school district to school district.  Most (including my school district, South Colonie) have instituted mask requirements, symptom checks, one-way hallways and increased spacing in classrooms and on buses.  

The main issue with spacing requirements is that there literally is not enough space for all the children enrolled. So while my school’s website says that grades K-6 have daily on-site instruction, my children (grades k, 2, and 4) are stuck at home doing virtual for the rest of the year.  We initially opted for virtual in September, given the uncertainty around what would happen with COVID numbers, and also knowing that all the social distancing measures would make school more tedious and waste a lot of time.  We were told we could switch back for the second semester, and we definitely wanted to!  But the principal called us one week before the semester  started, telling us that they would have to stay virtual because there just wasn’t enough room in the school.

Middle Schools and High Schools in our district are open on a hybrid model — one day in-person followed by two days virtual.  There have also been several “virtual days” where all the in-person students stay home and do virtual. Ostensibly this is to prepare for a shift to all-virtual in case it would be needed.  I highly doubt (especially at this point with COVID numbers tanking) that will ever happen. We technically hit numbers in the area that should have triggered a switch to virtual (and a school district near us did close in-person schooling for a while) but South Colonie opted to wait to be forced to close by the governor and he never did and then cases went down and it was no longer an issue.

MOVIE THEATERS

In October, upstate movie theaters could open under the following requirements: 25 percent capacity + top limit of 50 people per screening; masks, assigned seating, social distancing and enhanced air filtration.

The big movie theaters near me — Regal Cinemas located in two area malls — are still not open. The whole chain closed in October.  My guess is that the state requirements make it unprofitable to run — plus people aren’t all that willing to go out and see the movies, anyway.  (Although the demand is swiftly coming back. The last few times I visited the mall there were a lot of people there.)  

There are smaller independent theaters and some other chains that are open, though I’ve been unable to visit — obtaining babysitting for our 4 kids is challenging and there haven’t been any movies that I’d want to bring the kids to.  Plus my husband is a more naturally cautious person than I am, and I haven’t been able to convince him that it’s perfectly safe.  It IS perfectly safe, but it’s not worth getting into an argument with my husband about it.  There’s plenty to watch over our streaming options at home.

CHURCHES/HOUSES OF WORSHIP

My church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon church).  Individual congregations are called “wards” or “branches” — a ward generally has 80-200 people that attend or participate in some way, while a branch is smaller.  6-12 individual units are grouped into stakes, which are headed by a stake president.  The stake president is under an area presidency, who in turn report to the first presidency of the church. The area presidency gives general guidelines, the stake president more specific guidelines, and then the bishops (of the wards) or branch presidents figure out what it looks like in each unit.

For most of the summer and fall of last year, churches could open at 25 percent capacity, though that has recently been raised to 50 percent.  My ward is very small (about 80 people on a good Sunday, pre-COVID), so anybody who wanted to attend in person could attend from the moment we were allowed to reopen.  Another ward that shares our building is much larger, so they’ve set up a rotating schedule where they invite half of the families one week and then the other half the next.  

Mask use is required, but we don’t make a big deal about it when somebody is missing one. Every other pew is taped off and we make sure that families sit more than six feet apart from other families.  The state requires that we limit singing unless there’s 12 feet of distance, so we don’t sing hymns anymore — instead we play pre-recorded music. (Though sometimes I hear people singing quietly under their breath nearby — I can’t blame them. It’s hard not to sing!) We do a lot of “hygiene theater,” including wiping down the lectern every time the speaker changes and requiring the bathrooms to be cleaned after every use. 

Also the state guidelines prohibit handshakes, so we encourage people not to shake hands.  

We broadcast the service online to those that can’t or don’t want to attend. We are also still able to provide the sacrament (our church does bread and water). The young men preparing the sacrament wash and sanitize their hands beforehand, and the bread is broken up and put into little individual cups. The water is likewise served in individual single-use cups.  They bring the sacrament into the congregation and parents take the bread and water from the tray to pass to their children to minimize contact with the trays.

Youth groups are active and meet generally once a week, though they maintain social distancing and frequently have a virtual option.  There’s a group for children 8-12 that used to meet twice a month, but the person in charge of that in my ward is more COVID-wary than the average person, so they’ve been meeting virtually, to my great regret. (I hate having my 10-year-old go from virtual school to virtual piano lesson to virtual church activity.  I’d stop participating but it’s also pretty much the only way she can see her church friends, so for now we suck it up and deal with it.)

We have a system set up through the men’s and women’s auxiliaries in the ward for what we call “ministering.” Each member of the church has an opportunity to be assigned other members to minister to, and we’re responsible to call them, visit them, check on them, help them out as needed, and somebody is assigned to do the same for us. It’s’ a very flexible system and each person can kind of decide how they’re going to do it. When COVID first hit we were encouraged to not make our visits in-person, but now it’s up to the discretion of each individual.  I’d say most of us are still just doing calls and texts to check in with people, but there are a few that have resumed in-person visits.

WHAT MATTERS TO ME

Did you know that in New York State the governor still technically forbids us from gathering more than 10 people at a private residence, indoor OR OUTDOOR?  We can eat at a restaurant that has more than 10 people in it, but not at home. And given that my family has six people in it — well, good-bye family dinners.  It’s an order with no teeth, but my husband and his family are so risk-averse that the simple existence of the order is enough to forbid defying it. So we did not gather for Christmas, even though I offered to isolate for a week, take a COVID test beforehand and hold the gathering outside, masked and distanced.  And that bothers me so much. I know cases were spiking over the holidays, but every last one of us was working from home.  As I’ve said on twitter, I have to take a lot of deep breaths and remind myself that just because they have an extremely low tolerance for risk does not make them bad people and they still love my family and my kids.  It’s still hard.

And it’s not like I’m a COVID-denier, either. I agree with distancing and putting a top limit on the numbers of people allowed to gather indoors (though I think it should be applied uniformly — churches, restaurants, households and businesses all getting the same limits instead of the current patchwork of regulations.) I think masks are helpful, or at the very least worth wearing, especially when you’re indoors with other households and unable to distance.  I haven’t gotten a haircut since this started!  (I think it would probably be fine to get a haircut, but hanging out for an hour in close proximity with the hairdresser while they cut my hair seems more risky than basically anything else I do. Plus it seems awkward to get your hair cut while wearing a mask. Also I just generally dread getting my hair cut anyway — it’s a terrible chore and I dislike trying to make small talk with the stylist or them getting it wrong. Easier for now to just wear a ponytail all the time.)

I think people in my area have been generally careful — lots of people around here have close friends or family in New York City, so we all learned to take COVID seriously to begin with. I generally see people complying with mask policy in stores. But I do think it’s coming to an end — everybody’s just done with the restrictions. I’m seeing more and more cars parked at neighbor’s houses on the weekends as they have friends over, seeing more people at the malls (which still have restricted hours, which I think is weird and backwards), more at restaurants, etc. It’s been a long winter and we’re just ready for this to be over! Fortunately we’ve been seeing good vaccination numbers too and lots of appetite for getting the vaccines, so hopefully it really will be over imminently.

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