Sharon McKenna sorted through ill-fitting jeans and tossed out shirts riddled with holes in a recent wardrobe cleanout.
“When you’re stuck at home with nowhere to go, you realize how much of your clothes you don’t use anymore,” she said.
A few months ago, McKenna, who is 59 and lives in Montvale, New Jersey, had four full drawers and two hanging racks of clothes. Now, all her clothes fit in the drawers, and she donated the racks.
McKenna also got a new haircut, lost 8 pounds she gained during the pandemic, and treated herself to a few pairs of athletic cut jeans from Old Navy that fit just right.
Many people like McKenna are feeling a shift in attitude and perspective as states reopen, COVID-19 cases drop and vaccination numbers climb.
There’s a feeling in the air perhaps best described as a crisp notebook and new shoes on the first day of school. Or the house being freshly cleaned. Or the clock striking midnight on New Year’s Eve. A feeling of new beginnings. Folks are grappling with what the future looks like in a time when things are returning to normal and will simultaneously never be the same again.
We call it refreshing, albeit challenging. Historians call it the end of a “mass disruptive event.”
No going back
Gary Darden, associate professor of history and chair of the Department of Social Sciences and History at Fairleigh Dickinson University, defines a mass disruptive event as “something that unfolds over a long period of time and has a profound impact on nearly every American’s life.”
In the United States, we can point to World War I, The Great Depression and the Spanish flu as mass disruptive events, which are different, Darden says, from pinpoint catastrophes like 9/11 or even the war in Afghanistan, as there was no draft.
The COVID-19 pandemic is most certainly, Darden said, a mass disruptive event as well.
And after nearly every “MDE,” we can see a cultural shift.
Spanish flu and World War I, for example, are the reasons your bathroom is tiled.
The Spanish flu infected about 500 million people (about a third of the world’s population) and killed about 675,000 people in the United States. The death toll from the deadliest wave in the U.S. – from 1918 to 1919 – is higher than the death toll of the entire American Civil War.
Large events were canceled, and people were encouraged to wear masks and isolate themselves. (Sound familiar?)
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The country was also coming out of World War I, which ended in 1918.
“The trenches they fought in were filthy, full of lice and dead bodies and rot,” Darden said. “These vets came back and were obsessed with cleanliness.”
Exiting both a war where conscripted soldiers were living in filth, and a chillingly deadly pandemic, a cultural reset occurred, Darden said. And thus began the rise of tiled bathrooms, kitchens with linoleum floors and metal bed frames in children’s rooms.
“You could douse metal and tile in bleach or vinegar,” said Darden. “Fabric or wood surfaces are not as easy to clean.”
Hygiene became incredibly important to middle-class families in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Not to mention, many folks were listening to radios and attending movies, where cleaning products could be advertised, Darden said.
Two mass disruptive events caused home design to change so significantly, we’re still seeing the effect 100 years later.
In big ways and small, from home reconstruction to wardrobe cleanouts, people are feeling, as we slowly climb out of COVID-19, as if they’re getting a fresh start.
Still, things can’t return to the way they were in February 2020. Mass disruptive events have that effect. Right now, though, the changes are small: a lunch at a restaurant, more services at church, in-person classes.
Ed Marsh, a tech writer, finally feels comfortable going out to eat again. He and his wife sat outside at the Shannon Rose in Clifton, New Jersey, propane heaters warming them from the slight springtime chill.
“It just felt wonderful,” he said. Marsh has an autoimmune condition and has been careful about re-entering work and leisure spaces. But he’s feeling hopeful. In an act of good faith, Marsh bought Genesis concert tickets for the autumn.
Pastor Kendall Everett of Sussex Christian Reformed Church is looking forward to more in-person interactions with his congregants.
In September, the church started holding in-person services again, but with live broadcasts (something they offered before the pandemic, too) and an extra Sunday service: one at 8:30 a.m. and one at 10:30 a.m.
Now, the church’s reopening team is discussing a transition back to one service on Sundays. The church has also started doing in-person services for kids.
“I have two kids – one is 2 the other is 4,” Everett said. “They’ve been pretty disconnected for the past year. Now, our 4-year-old comes home talking more and more about her church friends. That’s been really exciting.”
At the Ridgewood Art Institute, a gallery and studio for professional and amateur artists, the board has deemed in-person art classes safe again after dozens of conversations on how best to reopen after almost a year with the lights off.
“In-person art classes will be around forever,” said President Carl Holst. “Good friends are made. It’s a social gathering with a group of people who have a common interest. We don’t talk politics, just art.”
The ‘new normal’
It’s too early to say what the long-term effects of the pandemic will have on our culture – what future historians will look back on and judge as the shift caused by COVID-19. But many have theories.
Families from New York City are restarting completely by moving to the New Jersey suburbs, said interior designer Shelley Cekirge, who has designed homes for clients making the move.
“It’s very hard to live with children in the city when you’re in lockdown,” she said.
Cekirge believes work structures will never be the same, now that so many companies have realized they can operate without a physical office space. Indeed, massive companies like Nationwide, Twitter and Square have switched permanently to at least partial remote work.
She also says home office design is on the rise, as many companies have switched completely to remote working.
“It used to be, maybe one person needed a home office,” she said. “Now, both people in a couple do. They want to be invested in their home office; for it to feel like a place where they can actually work long-term.”
Consideration for one’s Zoom background is also a popular request, said Cekirge said.
Historian Darden takes it a step further.
“This may impact home design forever, with a bigger emphasis on including home office space,” he said.
Darden’s department at Fairleigh Dickinson has a whole new system of virtual signatures, grading and paperwork.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever revert back to printed-out paperwork,” he said.
Darden also believes that masks are here to stay – not for everyday use, but during flu seasons or while sick.
“For years before the pandemic, we’d see people in Asian countries wearing masks during flu season. I think most Americans rolled their eyes at that,” Darden said. “But now, the idea of knowing I have a cold or am sick, I wouldn’t dare go to a grocery store. I don’t want to be responsible for giving someone else an illness.”
Technology has advanced. Hand sanitizer is omnipresent. Personal space and hygiene have been redefined.
“We just zoomed, pardon the pun, ahead 10 years in one years’ time,” Cekirge said. “We were always headed there, we’re just arriving more quickly.”
Rebecca King is a food writer for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.