By Liora Engel-Smith

Coronavirus changed much of daily life in the last year and a half, but as more North Carolinians get vaccinated, activities that just recently seemed inconceivable are returning to our lives. 

Fully vaccinated people can now travel and be in public without a mask. With weddings, concerts and family reunions on the horizon once more, the next new normal, one that resembles the life we had before, is emerging. 

That transition has proven to be anything but simple, especially as more than half of the state’s population have yet to receive even one shot, data from the state shows

These rates are a far cry from the 70-85 percent vaccination rate that experts have long said would give us “herd immunity” and stop the spread of the pandemic altogether. Nonetheless, coronavirus cases have declined from an average of 8,000 new infections a day at the peak last December to fewer than 2,000 new infections per day this month. 

The next “new normal” is shaping up to be similar, but not identical to pre-COVID life. We’ve asked health experts to help us make sense of it. Here are some of their suggestions.

Hold on to your masks

Fully vaccinated people can safely attend small or large gatherings both indoors and out without wearing a mask, but some are not ready to embrace that yet. Many businesses, including Walgreens and Kroger, are continuing to require masking for customers and staff, vaccinated or not. 

Scientists are still collecting data, so they don’t yet know if and when the protection from the vaccine expires. That means vaccinated people should hang onto their masks – for now. 

Vaccinated parents of young children who cannot yet get vaccinated may also wish to wear masks when they’re out and about with their unvaccinated children to model the behavior and prevent confusion surrounding mask-wearing.

“We still do need to be encouraging our kids to continue to wear masks,” said Ashley Perrott, physician executive at Novant Health’s Community Health and Wellness Institute. “I went to the grocery store with my daughter just yesterday and she put on her mask and in solidarity, I put on my mask with her.” 

Navigating the vaccine “honor system”

State health officials lifted many of the mass gathering bans and masking requirements in North Carolina in accordance with the new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while the risk of a vaccinated person catching coronavirus from an unvaccinated person is miniscule, Perrott said, transmission is still possible as long as the virus is circulating. 

Some unvaccinated people may choose to forgo masks now that masking requirements have been lifted. As a result it can be impossible to tell who is vaccinated in larger gatherings and public places. Perrott encouraged vaccinated people to continue to wear their masks in mass gatherings and some public settings as a precaution. 

“I think in places where you are in a large group of people, not knowing whether they are fully vaccinated or not, we still have to have some caution, the way we would with any infectious disease,” she said.

Zoom happy hours are (almost) a thing of the past 

Fully vaccinated people can safely return to an in-person social calendar. Weddings, birthdays and family reunions are safe to attend, Perrott said, with some caveats. 

“We can get back to some of our normal events and celebrations in life,” she said. “Though they may look a little bit different than they did in the past with more access to get the sanitizer and hand-washing and masks available for people who still need them, or for people who want them.” 

At least one pre-pandemic ritual may be a thing of the past, however: blowing candles on a birthday cake. 

“I personally hope that we lose the blowing [candles] tradition,” said April Baur, school health program manager at the Asheville-based Mountain Area Health Education Center. “Another thing that we see with all of our COVID safety measures is that the rates of seasonal flu were extremely low. So I think there may be things we can take forward with us.”

Sibling rivalries 

Teenagers can now get the Pfizer vaccines, effectively ending quarantine for young people in that group who get a shot. Their younger, unvaccinated siblings, however, still have to practice caution for now. Vaccine approval for children under 12 likely won’t happen until the fall, Baur said. 

The vaccinated teenagers may return to normal activities including outings and summer camps on their own. Families, however, may need to find activities that both vaccinated and unvaccinated kids can safely enjoy. 

That scenario will likely play out in Baur’s own family activities this summer, since two of her three children are too young to get the vaccine. 

“Our plan is to do the things we can that are easy to stay safe,” she said. 

“We’re just going to keep using our same safety protocols indoors for them and then focus on as many things that we can do that are outdoors and have social distancing.”

Traveling in the U.S.? Check out what COVID and vaccination rates are where you’re going. Search by state, even by county, using this tool from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Liora Engel-Smith joined NC Health News in July 2019 and covers policies, programs and issues that affect rural areas. She has previously worked for the The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and the Muscatine...