There’s no flick-of-the-switch moment for when the pandemic will be over, they say.
And there’s obvious truth to that line of thinking. Different groups of people are getting vaccinated at different times. No vaccines have been approved for most school-age children yet. Some folks will refuse to get the vaccine at all. And above all, the virus isn’t going to just disappear.
But like the gradual dawning of a new day, you can also expect that as this winter gives way to spring, and spring turns into summer, many of the things that once flavored our lives are coming back.
PennLive dialed around the calendar for our second year with COVID-19 and came to one unescapable conclusion: With the combination of longer days, warmer weather and FDA-approved vaccines, Pennsylvania’s day planner is going to be fuller in 2021 with places to go and things to do.
It will be up to us to prove we can handle it.
“It’s not just about the state of the virus getting better and vaccinations, but we’ve also just simply learned some things,” Matthew Ferrari, a biology professor at Penn State, explained about the months ahead. As a member of Penn State’s COVID-19 response team, he’s spent the past year tracking the virus and helping the university devise its plans.
“We’ve learned that outdoor activities with masks on and meaningfully distanced can be relatively safe. So there’s no reason that now that we have that experience, we shouldn’t use it.
“But we should be doing that in a thoughtful way,” Ferrari cautioned. “Everything we’re doing now can either facilitate or put at risk those events in the future that we’re being optimistic about… If we rush back in, then we just keep moving the goalposts away and we never quite get there.”
The coming reset is going to come in fits and starts, and it certainly won’t be an across-the-board success. Some events are still being cancelled. But more and more, and especially for those with a little lead time to play with, plans are being laid anew for street fairs, stadium events, and marking milestones like weddings, graduations or funerals with the requisite pomp and circumstance.
Not necessarily to party like it’s 2019. But not a repeat of all-virtual 2020, either.
It’s already started in some ways.
Like the first crocuses popping up through the snow, fans were in attendance at a March 2 National Hockey League game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins thanks to the Wolf administration’s approval of 15 percent capacity at indoor venues the day before.
Take a spin around the calendar with us, and see what else we’re seeing. (This story is looking at things other than the restaurant and bar businesses, which have continued to operate under their own guidances through most of the pandemic.)
The rush of vaccinations appears to have come just a little too late to save some upcoming events.
No standing room only bars this Saint Patrick’s Day. No fill-the-hall community fish fries through the Christian Lenten season — although take-out is still available.
Many churches will still be empty for Easter Sunday, maintaining worship instead through livestreams, drive-in parking lot services, or even telephone conference calls in areas where internet signals aren’t strong. The traditional high school musical that so many communities love to celebrate? Not happening.
But the steady tide of cancellations that’s battered our collective pysche over the past year has slowed, and it’s been replaced with more of a — if not a Go! Go! Go! mindset — a spirit of “let’s see what we can do.”
Organizers of Jubilee Day in Mechanicsburg, for example, are planning to have some kind of in-person event come June 17. Billed as the largest and longest-running one-day street fair on the East Coast, it was canceled last year.
“Our initial outlook is we’re going to plan as normal until we’re told that we can’t,” Jeff Palm, executive director of the sponsoring Mechanicsburg Chamber of Commerce, said last week. To a large degree that will depend on the future track of the virus and what borough and state officials are comfortable with, since permits for street closures are required.
Palm knows there will be modifications — maybe fewer, better-spaced vendor spaces, for example, along with masking requirements — but with the steady increase in vaccinations and two months to go until a May 1 deadline that’s been promised to exhibitors for final plans — he’s increasingly optimistic.
“If you squint real hard it will resemble what you’re used to seeing, but probably not exactly what you’re used to seeing,” Palm said. “Like every business, every organization, and everything that we’ve done in life for the last twelve months it’s going to have to flow with what’s going to be in everybody’s best interests.”
Similarly, the City of Harrisburg is moving forward with plans for its ArtsFest in Riverfront Park on Memorial Day weekend with changed layouts to promote social distancing and, possibly, designated entry and exit points for “greater control of foot traffic.” If current restrictions tighten, the city has told vendors, it could revert to a virtual format.
Schools are poised for a big finish, too.
After a year of de-densified classes, canceled field trips, concerts, and stage productions, and no fans in stands for sporting events, high school administrators told us they are looking to return to some form of in-person graduation ceremonies for the long-suffering Class of 2021.
“We are trying to have a pretty traditional graduation outside in our football stadium,” said Cynthia Lupold, 12th grade principal at Carlisle High School, with limited ticketing for families based on the state’s capacity limits at the time. The school is also considering an outdoor prom for graduating seniors, possibly on a tent pitched on school grounds.
Other groups are staying light on their feet in hopes of making the most of the changed circumstances, even if that means changing their date for a year.
Members of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church that puts on the popular PA Greek Fest in Wormleysburg each May begin prep work months in advance. With many of the volunteers 65 or older or otherwise having a high-risk profile for COVID-19, “normal” is already off the table.
But rather than cancel, the organizing committee has decided to run a paired-down, drive-through event like last year on the weekend of May 14 and 15. Committee spokesman George Spanos said the church is then considering holding a second event in late summer or early fall highlighting their culture, like church tours and the Olympic Flames dancers.
This is when life may look as normal as it’s been since last March. Don’t just take our word for it, either.
Remember, President Joe Biden has vowed to have enough vaccine supply for every American adult who wants a shot by late May, and on Monday, the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidances stating that fully vaccinated adults can gather indoors with others who are also fully vaccinated.
Experts like Ashish Jha, one of the leading public commentators on the pandemic and dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told a writer for The Atlantic magazine last month he expects to be able to host 20 or so friends for a Fourth of July barbecue in his backyard, with every adult vaccinated and no one having to wear a mask.
Then too, there will be baseball.
Pennsylvania’s two major league baseball franchises are both already selling season ticket packages, good signs they are optimistic about letting some fans in the stands this year as mitigation orders relax. And, closer to home, the Eastern League’s Harrisburg Senators are also selling seats at City Island’s FNB Field.
So that’s burgers and baseball. Check.
And as for the third leg of many Pennsylvanians’ summer trifecta, the beach? More families seem to be trying for summer travel to popular destinations like the Jersey Shore and the Outer Banks.
“In 2021, we’re really way ahead of where we normally are at this particular juncture,” said Clay Rossiter, a managing broker for Fox Real Estate in Ocean City, N.J. That’s in part because of a large number of lease-holders from 2020 who deferred to this year, and strong demand from new renters.
“My inventory is already depleted, and normally we don’t see it depleted as much as it is right now until like May,” Rossiter said. “But here it is creeping on March and I’m hard-pressed to find anything for the week of July 31st right now.
Live concerts and shows could be on the docket at some point this year as well.
Some old summer stand-byes, like the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra’s outdoor Pops Concert series around the 4th of July each year, are still in serious limbo, waiting for final decisions from the community partners they work in tandem with and who themselves are still making decisions.
But Frank Schofield, the promoter of the popular Harrisburg University concert series, says “I believe in this calendar year we will have live entertainment. It seems the industry is headed in that direction.”
The big caveat, he said, is some further movement in the Wolf Administration’s capacity limits for public gatherings, currently 20 percent for outdoor venues and 15 percent indoor.
Pennsylvania will continue to monitor COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalization rates, vaccinations and other factors to see if and when those levels can be raised, acting Health Secretary Alison Beam told PennLive in a recent interview.
For commercial promoters, the current ceilings are going to have to be significantly higher than they are now. And then, once the rules make it economically feasible, there’s a still a little runway needed to market, sell tickets, and line up the event staff.
That’s why, Schofield said, some of the shows already scheduled by HU will likely be rescheduled to a later date. But he senses that, at some point, they’re going to happen.
“I think there’s excitement in the air, and I think everybody feels it.”
The nation’s biggest concert promoter, Live Nation’s Michael Rapino, seems to agree, telling industry analysts during a Feb. 25 financial report that outdoor shows — such as those the company books for Hershey Entertainment & Resorts — should return this summer.
“For both the U.S. and U.K., projections indicate everyone who wants to get vaccinated will be able to do so by May or June…. We believe there will be strong momentum to reopen society swiftly as soon as vaccines are readily available. And we believe outdoor activities will be the first to happen,” Rapino said. “So while the timing of our return to live will continue to vary across global markets, every sign points to it beginning safely in many countries sometime this summer and scaling further from there.”
For the moment, Hershey has six 2021 shows listed on its Website, starting with a Rod Stewart show rolled over from last year. A Hershey Entertainment spokeswoman wouldn’t confirm those dates last week, saying only that the state’s latest capacity guidelines are being reviewed and the company is working closely with each tour on their plans.
“As scheduling for music and entertainment tours continues to evolve, we don’t have additional information on proposed events and shows at this time,” Quinn Bryner said.
Back to school, meanwhile, may literally mean back to school for the vast majority of Pennsylvania k-12 and college students in 2021.
“Most school districts are planning to have all their kids back fully in-person in the fall,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
“I think we can get back to more normal type settings in the classroom, and at school events. But whether or not you’re going to go right into packing 300 people into the auditorium for a school concert, I’m not sure everyone’s going to be there right away,” DiRocco said, noting that will depend on federal and state guidelines and peoples’ readiness.
”The one thing that I think districts have learned is you have to be flexible. This stuff can change on a daily basis. So you know, you want to make a preliminary set of plans. But you better have Plan B and Plan C ready to go too, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
That brings us to football, which — unless you were a player, coach or parent — was pretty much a television spectacle in 2020.
As things stand here in March, most Power Five college football programs like Penn State’s are hoping to be able to play before some type of live crowds this fall.
Len DeLuca, a professor of sports management at New York University’s Stern School of Business who also spent large chunks of his career with ESPN and ABC, says fans will clearly be back in 2021. It’s just a question of how many, and he expects that will vary from conference to conference.
He has a Penn State / Big Ten prediction.
“It may not be 100 percent (of capacity) immediately, but we can graduate up and get to that moment which we’re all waiting for, for first night game, you’re all wearing white and — it may be 50 percent, but 50 percent of 110 is still 55,000 people — and the absolute adulation people will feel about: ‘We’re here,’” DeLuca said.
“And it will mean more when it happens at Penn State, when it happens at Michigan and when it happens at Ohio State, because it is clear that the leadership of the Big Ten has been the most vigilant about protecting the safety of the participants. So when you open… that’s legitimate. We’re really open. We’re back.”
At Penn State, some kind of initial announcement about the 2021 games is expected later this month.
“We are optimistic we will be able to have fans in Beaver Stadium in the fall,” said Kristina Petersen, associate athletics director for strategic communication. “We will be directly communicating with our fans in mid-March and will continue to reach out to them in the coming months to update them on our timeline and decision-making process.”
Finally, we checked on the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which went virtual this year.
State Agriculture Press Secretary Shannon Powers said planning is for a return to a live show in January 2022 at this point, with plenty of flexibility being built in that include virtual and hybrid options.
Will it really happen?
So this has been a story about peoples’ hope.
After a year of isolation, is any of this realistic?
Ferrari, the Penn State professor, thinks it is, as long we move in measured steps and don’t lose our heads.
“Everything we’re doing now can either facilitate or put at risk those events in the future that we’re being optimistic about,” he said. “So I think we actually need to use this optimism as a tool to help reinforce the importance of vigilance and priorities and not letting the optimism undermine those important preventative measures that we really need.”
Beam agreed, saying what Pennsylvanians do now is especially important.
“We really need folks to commit to masking, to social distancing, being smart by way of interacting with folks that aren’t necessarily within your household.
It’s careful attention to these details while the vaccines are taking root in more and more of the population, Beam said, that will be the key to keeping case counts down and permitting capacity limits for public venues to go up, which will make the difference for everything from weddings and funerals to whether your ability to make a road trip to a Phillies game.
She asked that people remember that testing is widely available “and folks should avail themselves of it as necessary with any sort of potential exposure or symptoms. Because that’s going to help us really identify the presence of the virus and be able to be on top of it and contain it as we have more manageable caseloads.”
Another moment that could really help, Ferrari said, is the approval of vaccines for school-age children. If that happens by the start of the new school year, “then I would be feeling really, really comfortable about this thing basically being a blip in the coming year.”
Both noted, outside their official lives, they have pre-pandemic pleasures that they want to get back to, too.
“More than anything, we know that this past year has really taken a toll on the ability to have folks – even in smaller gatherings – be able to see family. I’m an individual that has a very tight family and so I would most be interested in, as safely as possible, being able to gather with family,” Beam said.
“And from what I understand, I am not alone in that camp as far as Pennsylvanians go.”
Ferrari had a slightly different take.
“I want to go somewhere and tell someone to bring me a cheeseburger and a beer,” he said, laughing. “That is not a thing that has happened here in a very long time.”