MILWAUKEE - The past year of the pandemic has taken a massive toll. More than 500,000 dead, many more falling ill, millions of people without a job, businesses closed, life plans cut short, and protests calling for social justice.
Health experts and economists are optimistic as things, at least here in Wisconsin, are trending in the right direction. But they say that depends on what we do.
Vaccinations are essential to returning to what we considered a "pre-pandemic normal way of life." Even then, some question whether the "normal" some of us long for is even the kind of "normal" we should go back to.
"I think it’s been hard on a lot of people. I know that we can get back to normal, one day at a time. As long as people take things seriously and know that it’s not a joke," said Santha Major.
Major says the events of the past year has racked her with fear. She is a cancer survivor and has underlying health conditions. A number of people close to her also fell ill or died from the disease. Major said those events even made her fearful of leaving her home. But today, she is out grabbing a bite to eat at Sherman Phoenix.
"To be honest, I had a mental breakdown, along with all the losses I’ve had during the pandemic, from COVID. I’ve experienced a lot of deaths, and the overall turmoil," Major said. "But having that breakdown has given me the sense that life is short."
Seeking happiness seems to be a common thread among a number of people FOX6 News spoke with about what the future will look like. It all points to the fact that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But how much of that tunnel is left – and what’s on the other side is still up for debate.
"It feels completely different than it did six months to a year ago," said 24-year-old Riley Sapp as he and a friend tossed a football at Bradford Beach one afternoon. "I’m really hopeful things get back to normal because it really affected a lot of people. There’s a lot of people out of work."
Sapp, despite his struggles finding steady employment, remains optimistic.
"I lost a few jobs. Ever since then it’s been hard to pick things back up and figure it all out," said Sapp. "Until we get there, we got to make through this: the trials and tribulations. Hopefully, we can get back to normal."
Sapp said with vaccinations on the rise and restrictions being lifted, it gives him hope – and a lesson to take with us down the road.
"It feels completely different than it did six months to a year ago. I feel like we can get back to normal," Sapp said. "And when we do, I feel that we’ll be better off, smarter as a people. I’m hopeful."
However, the specter of what was pre-pandemic is still evident around the city. Some businesses have remained open; others have closed. Some have mothballed since last February -- still frozen in time. Moreover, in the time and events that have elapsed since, in what was 2020, you will find murals within our communities -- those honoring healthcare workers and the marches for social justice.
"I have hopes that the community will come together and we will unite," said Keviea Guiden, a community organizer with Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC). "I have hopes of getting back outdoors. I have hopes of getting back in the field and getting in contact with residents."
The pandemic is severely curtailing efforts by Guiden and BLOC to make inroads in the Milwaukee community during an election year -- a year that also saw a number of protests and marches calling for policing reforms and social justice following high-profile incidents and deaths involving law enforcement.
Guiden said the pandemic has opened a door to what is going on, not just around the world, but also in our own backyards. She hopes while life can return to normal; that it doesn’t go back to business as usual.
"There are voices that need to be lifted up, folks need to be heard. Change needs to take place," said Guiden. "I believe there are teaching lessons through all things in life. I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel because if you do not move forward you end up being stagnant and staying in the same place."
There is no doubt that whatever normal we have in the future, it will look different.
Economists predict a strong rebound of the economy. However, with millions of people unemployed, it likely will not look the same. A number of those same people who are unemployed could be left out as the pandemic has shifted the way businesses work, and how those employees did work in a pre-pandemic world.
As vaccinations rise and positive tests fall, restrictions are being loosened. Some businesses, like restaurants, are reopening. Fans are being welcomed back to arenas. Concert venues are plotting a path forward that could provide a starting point to resuming a social life.
COVID-19 vaccination, COVID-19 vaccine
"I think the CDC guidelines are the start of the return to normalcy, in particular for those who are vaccinated," said Dr. Ben Weston, the medical services director for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.
As Wisconsin thaws from its winter hibernation, Weston points to vaccinations as a barometer of how quickly a sense of normal will return.
"Whether we’ll get back to where we were, you know, a year ago -- before any of us were thinking much about COVID, I think it’s hard to say. I think we’ll see more masks in the future, I think we’ll see some more precautions in certain settings in the future. And I think we’ll see more vaccines in the future," Weston said.
As we start to look over our shoulder at what was, and look ahead at what is still to come, some say the pandemic is proving to be a point in time where we can’t take anything for granted.
"Trying to find what makes you happy has been a big thing, I feel like during the pandemic," said Blair Weber.
Weber, a sophomore at UW-Milwaukee studying film from Woodbury, Minn., said as the pandemic appears to be trending in the right direction, one cannot celebrate too soon.
"I don’t think there’s ever going to be the same normal, as before. I think it’s going to be different," said Weber. "I think people are going to look at this past year and start appreciating concerts, group gatherings – in general – more."
"So if you look at the bad, you’re going to get the bad. If you reflect on the bad, that’s what you’re going to get," said Santha Major.
All Major is hoping to get out of the time she has left on this earth is "a long life. A long, healthy life."