This autumn, as the air grows brisk and leaves turn amber, young children will trundle off to school with new lunchboxes and maybe masks, Zoom classes a fading memory. Commuters will again fight resurgent rush-hour traffic, though perhaps less often than before.
College students will roar back into town, proof of vaccination in hand. Fans may sit shoulder to shoulder at sports bars to cheer on the Red Sox and Patriots, social distancing no more.
In Massachusetts, some already have embraced their former lives with little reservation, and more will follow suit in the months to come, as familiar rhythms and routines take hold. But after more than a year of stress, isolation, and loss, the transition to post-pandemic life will be far from easy, strained by residual fear and safety precautions that have become hard-wired.
Near Coolidge Corner in Brookline last week, bartender Ben Fisher said he is looking forward to fewer restrictions and a freer social life. But it’s become second nature to wear a mask, even to check on the laundry in his building, and he said he still recoils a bit when approaching someone without a mask.
“I think our brains are going to have to re-learn for a while,” Fisher said as he poured afternoon drinks behind a glass barrier and wearing a mask at Grainne O’Malley’s. “And sometimes it’s not easy to re-learn.”
Public health experts now expect the coronavirus will be with us for years to come, though they hope it will diminish to a low-level threat, rather than an urgent danger defining daily reality. Nonetheless, with widespread vaccination, the pandemic will continue to recede, and the country will inch closer to normalcy.
About half of Americans are apprehensive about returning to in-person interactions after the pandemic, according to a report from the American Psychological Association. And even as the threat of coronavirus subsides, it’s difficult psychologically to navigate the gray area between risky and safe, behavioral scientists said.
People often calculate risk not just on the full scope of the data — which shows vaccines are highly effective — but on personal experience, such as whether friends were infected with COVID-19 after dining indoors or flying.
Certain precautions will linger after they are no longer mandated, specialists predict. Some will wear masks during flu season or when they ride public transportation. Others will gather indoors only with friends or colleagues who are vaccinated.
“There’s going to be variability in terms of what people are doing,” said Gretchen Chapman, a social and decision sciences professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Some may be slow to engage socially “because we’re just out of practice with our social skills.” Others will want to stick with certain modes of pandemic living, like working remotely, she added.
And the transition will be gradual, with no clear moment of triumph as a milestone, especially with international hot spots surging and the ever-present risk of deadlier variants.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a single day when we look around and say, ‘This is normal again,’ ” said Megan Ranney, an associate dean at Brown University School of Public Health.
For 24-year-old Kimberlee Maniscalco, who once attended as many as three concerts per week, hearing live music may be the best part about getting back to normal. Maniscalco said she’s already scoping out lineups for June, when she’ll be fully vaccinated.
In Brookline Village last week, Kylie Fraticeli stood behind the counter at the Blue Moon Smoke Shop, a mask covering her nose and mouth. Last year, she and her family were evicted from their home in Waltham and forced to live with relatives and friends across the country. Any trepidation about adjusting to regular life pales in comparison, she said.
Still, some habits, such as constantly monitoring the safety of day-to-day social situations, will be hard to break, she said.
“You still might wonder whether you’ll accidentally make someone sick,” she said.
Residents with health challenges face a different reality altogether.
“The whole idea that there is a ‘normal’ to return to is questionable at best,” said Zee Bowditch, a 27-year-old disabled student at Salem State University. Bowditch, who also has an autoimmune disease and is immunosuppressed, has been vaccinated but will not attend large events for the rest of the year — meaning he’ll once again miss his family’s annual pilgrimage to Fenway Park.
“This idea that the vaccine means everything is normal and totally fine and we can just go back to the way things were feels both disingenuous and dangerous,” he said. “The people who are going to suffer the most are going to be people like me.”
Bowditch has only recently gotten comfortable venturing out of the house for shopping and small gatherings, feeling safe thanks to mask requirements and limited commercial capacity.
“The idea that towns and states are rushing to undo that makes me want to stay inside more,” Bowditch said. The vaccines are quite effective, Bowditch said, but “95 is not 100.”
Virtually all business restrictions are expected to be lifted in Boston and the rest of the state by September, so long as there is no surge in cases. But some municipalities have said they want to proceed more cautiously. Though the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week cleared the way for fully vaccinated people to forgo masks outside when they can socially distance, Salem and Brookline are still mandating them.
In the meantime, people all over the state are easing back into everyday tasks that once seemed commonplace. Joseph Maxwell, 36, a Malden resident who has spent the pandemic staying at home with his young son and working to build his career as a photographer, recently marked one return to routine. His first time riding the bus in a year came with an expired Charlie Card and a familiar frustration: The bus didn’t come.
“Of course this would happen the first time out, because this usually is what would happen,” he joked.
Returning to the office will be bittersweet for parents who have enjoyed extra time with their kids while working from home, but are desperate for uninterrupted workdays.
Kids under 16 are also not yet eligible for vaccines — though it’s getting close for some — complicating the path to normalcy for some families.
Casey Corcoran, a Milton resident who got his second Moderna shot on Monday, is looking forward to upcoming road trips to see — and hug — relatives he and his wife and two kids haven’t seen in more than a year. But the family won’t board planes until their 9-year-old and 12-year-old can get vaccinated, an option they hope will be available before too long.
“We just don’t feel like it’s a risk worth taking, with a vaccine for our children so close on the horizon,” Corcoran said. “We’ve waited this long; we can wait a little bit longer.”
Others are more eagerly flocking to airports. A newfound sense of freedom has spurred a rush in travel bookings, said Diane Mullahy, president and owner of Travel Leaders Framingham. Over the summer, most clients are sticking to domestic travel, but many have booked fall trips to Europe, Mullahy among them.
“People are dying to go,” she said. “ ‘I’ve had enough of this, I just want to go.’ That’s what everybody’s saying.”
As they predict what US life will look like over the summer and fall, public health experts look hopefully to Israel, where cases fell dramatically as the vaccinated population grew. But India, battling a devastating second wave of the virus, offers a cautionary tale.
“As long as there are parts of the world that are on COVID fire, we have to be really careful, and we have to get them help,” said Todd Ellerin, head of infectious diseases for South Shore Health.
The threat of new strains will make it hard to move past the pandemic, he said.
And COVID-19 will probably remain a presence in the United States for years to come. Ranney predicted people may need booster shots, though it’s not clear how many or when.
Cautioned Shira Doron, an infectious disease doctor at Tufts Medical Center: “No one’s predictions have come true throughout this entire pandemic.”
Sahar Fatima of Globe staff contributed to this report.