Approach with Caution: How to Handle the Return to ‘Normality’

Hurray, Level Two has arrived! But before you rush headlong into this brave new world, Nicky Dewe sets out some key considerations.

The changing of levels has become a strange new custom in our lives that – like every other damn thing right now – brings a mixed bag of emotions. When Jacinda announced on that first fateful Monday that we had two more days to hoard toilet paper, my primary emotion was shock – I don’t think any of us believed that we lived in a world where the government could order us to hide in our houses. But it was also a great relief. Now we had a concrete plan for dealing with something that had become a clear and present danger for us all. I don’t think I’ll ever forget picking up my kids from school straight after that announcement. I was still feeling tearful but trying to act calm as I prised them off their little friends who wanted to hug goodbye. There but for the grace of god goes another cluster.

When Level 3 got the go ahead we were rapt that we could now drive to the next suburb, particularly because it’s significantly nicer than ours and is by the beach. It was a delight to have a change of scene from our same old streets and a joy to buy coffee and baked goods from our favourite places. I felt proud when I saw all the clever and inventive ways people had devised for contactless service. It was weird but heartening to reach across a two-metre bench to collect some croissants. At that point we were also reunited with my 72-year-old mother who’d been on her own for four weeks. Seeing your mum is a gentle start to socialisation and it was a beautiful moment when she got to cuddle her grandkids again. One rainy Sunday we drove through town, just to check it was still there. We didn’t get out of the car though, there was nowhere to go. These were all baby steps towards operating in the real world again and we treaded carefully.

Now here we are at Level 2 and returning to a new kind of normal. It’s the moment we’ve been holding out for and yet it poses its own unique challenges. The most significant of these is whether we will still know how to talk to each other up close (which is to say, one metre apart). One thing I have learned over the past 500 weeks is exactly where to position my phone at different times of day to catch the best light and angles. The ‘touch up my face’ button on Zoom has also been a game changer. Now that we’re charging back into three dimensions I feel exposed. I don’t want people to see my pores again. At least everyone will be in the same boat with grown-out hairstyles and myriad other personal grooming fails on display. I propose that we keep those first encounters brief so that we don’t freak out and immediately expire from sensory overload. That would seem like a waste after everything we’ve been through.

It’s also gonna be tough to make decisions around clothes. It would have been helpful if Jacinda had offered us a dress code as part of the terms of Level 2. There’s an impulse to break out the best rags to compensate for weeks in filthy tracksuit pants but maybe we just call it smart casual for every occasion? We’ll need to retrain our brains away from comfort as the key driver. Anything other than a drawstring waist will feel seriously restrictive but we must push through.

Another thing that has ceased to have meaning since we started sheltering in place is time. It no longer works the way it used to. Sometimes an hour lasts for 13 days and other times you wake up to find it’s 3pm on Tuesday. It seems to take an age to get to cocktail hour (by which I mean anytime after the 1pm announcement), then before you know it people are demanding to know what’s for dinner. How are we going to be punctual? I think we should keep arrangements loose. If people show up great, if they don’t then, at least for the next few weeks, it really can’t be held against them.

We need to face some hard facts about who we are now and recognise our new strengths and limitations. Animals who are raised in captivity almost never survive in the wild and while it’s true that we’ve only been caged up for seven weeks, I think we ought to go slowly. Our PM has instructed us to get spaced out and I think she’s on the money. Be vague, remain elusive, smoke a cone if you need to. We’ve got the green light right to get through this in whatever way feels right.

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