New York and California both opened back up last week, lifting most pandemic restrictions, with their governors touting a “return to normal.”
These past 15 months have been anything but normal. More than 600,000 died of COVID-19 in the U.S. — roughly 63,000 in California and 53,000 in New York — and more than 34 million people in the country caught the virus. My friends and neighbors had it at the start of the pandemic, in March of 2020; another friend is just recovering now. I’ve had friends who were hospitalized and a relative who died. Everyone I know was affected, by loss or change. Lockdowns, shutdowns, layoffs, work-from-home, school-from-home, shop-from-home, holidays canceled, weddings postponed.
Even after everyone in my immediate and extended family was vaccinated, we were still unsure of whether it really was safe to visit, safe to hug, safe to take off the mask, safe to go into public places.
Slowly, we’re all getting used to it. People started going out to dinner. My eldest went on a vacation. My sister flew out west to visit her kids and grandkids. Are we returning to normal? And what did we change during our year at home that we might want to keep?
What happens to all those vegetable gardens and backyard chicken coops, new habits of baking and hiking, working from home? Will we slide back into full-time commuting, with its accompanying traffic jams and crashes, auto emissions, and loss of home and family time?
It’s too early to say. A lot of businesses found that the work-from-home model was good for them and their employees. My former carpool buddy’s company reduced its office size by half and is allowing staff to continue remote work and use the office as needed. The Daily News closed its offices permanently, finding the shift to remote work was a success. And even Amazon, which had announced a full return-to-the-office policy, last week pivoted (our favorite pandemic word) and is allowing employees to work from home two days a week.
It seems likely that some sort of hybrid office/remote model will continue — some 30 years after we started hearing that telecommuting would be our future. It’s been tested now, and a lot of people like it. Bloomberg News reported that a May survey found nearly 40 percent of workers would consider quitting if their companies demand a full-time return to the office. Most cited the cost savings and avoiding the commute as reasons.
All that at-home time last year led to those surges in baking and gardening, which might become an ongoing habit for some, even if they go back to the office.
Industry giant Bonnie Plants estimated that 20 million U.S. residents started gardening for the first time last year, and it’s true that seeds and vegetable plants sold out quickly. Seed companies report even stronger orders in 2021 than last year. A survey by Minneapolis-based Axiom Marketing found that 80% of homeowners plan to continue gardening this year.
Our unscientific surveys show interest might be waning. My Minneapolis friend, a first-time gardener, dismantled the raised bed her stuck-at-home college kid built for her in the first pandemic spring and gave it to a friend this past spring. Turns out she hates gardening, as she had earlier suspected, and this year she has just a few pots of herbs. Driving around this region, we see a lot of weed patches that were first-time gardens last year.
Our own vegetable gardens have grown this year, in part because my husband took pity on my need for home pumpkins and winter squashes. I was banned from planting them in the kitchen gardens after that year I overplanted. The whole garden became an ocean of enormous squash leaves, and we lost the peppers and tomatoes under the waves. He likes to put the pumpkins in remote gardens, but I like having them at home where I can more reasonably spar with the deer. So this year he tilled a new area, just outside the garden, where I have been permitted to put in four plants.
I’ll lose a lot of my garden time when I have to return to the office later this summer. I appreciated being able to trade traffic time for garden time and still be able to sit down to work early. At lunchtime I could milk the goats or do a little weeding, then go back to my computer and phone for the afternoon. Looks like that will be changing soon.
Fortunately the days are so long now that I should still have time at home and in the garden, in the light of summer, even after the “return to normal.”
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on July
Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.
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