The New Normal: Looking Back as We Enter Year Three of Pandemic Life

Two years ago, who thought about social distancing or wearing surgical masks to the grocery store? And remember the scramble for toilet paper?
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PHOTOS BY HUCK BEARD

In March 2020, many Americans had only just learned about COVID-19 — and few could’ve predicted its world-altering impact. We added words like “unprecedented,” “Zoom” and “new normal” to our daily vernacular; when possible, we moved life online. Milestones — weddings, graduations, senior proms, birthdays and funerals — passed with few tangible markers. When businesses shut down for months just before St. Patrick’s Day, green decor grew dusty in darkened storefront windows.

Our first story referencing the pandemic appeared on March 11, 2020, with the announcement that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade had been canceled. The article included an explanation of what it meant to social distance — staying six feet away from each other wasn’t yet something most people felt the need to do. Yet suddenly, print shops were selling social distancing floor decals and signs everywhere urged visitors to keep apart. 

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Rush hour traffic all but disappeared, and Port Authority buses ran nearly empty, displaying banner messages such as, “Stay Home. Save Lives.” There was a resale market for toilet paper as “panic buying” left grocery shelves bare. It would be months before some brands of masks and hand sanitizer were readily available again.

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Thousands of workers abandoned their offices and cubicles for the safety and isolation of home. For many, the first return to work — often delayed until 2021 — was eerie, looking at desks covered with papers and projects untouched, in some cases, for more than a year.

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The first local cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County were announced on March 14. Two adults between the ages of 60 and 70 appeared to have contracted the virus while traveling out of state. 

We reported on subjects such as what songs to sing to make sure you were washing your hands for an appropriate amount of time, and details about the rapid changes the restaurant and entertainment industries were faced with as the city banned gatherings of more than 50 attendees. 

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PHOTO BY MARTHA RIAL

The pandemic was impossible to ignore as evidenced by a photo essay that we published in our June issue. 

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PHOTO BY RICHARD COOK

Haunting images of a near-empty Pittsburgh International Airport mimicked the post-9/11 stillness in the skies. (This stands in stark contrast to the ample travel opportunities popping up today, as airlines resume flights and passenger levels are expected to near pre-pandemic levels for the first time.)

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PHOTO BY HUCK BEARD

Two years in, we’ve come a long way. Vaccination rates continue to climb, cases continue to fall and even Allegheny County’s Health Director says we’ve finally “turned the corner” on COVID. But we’ve seen this pattern before. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected — but here’s hoping this year is COVID’s last.

Categories: The 412