October 23, 2021

Coming soon: A new normal

From gloom to Zoom, let the good times roll

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Ayden Wilber of Greek Peak Mountain Resort stands in front of a temporary screen for a drive-in movie theater the facility hopes to open in the coming week. If successful, it would allow families to watch a movie while remaining socially distanced.

It’s been slow dawning on most of us, but even after this pandemic crisis is over, life is never going back to what we used to call normal. What’s still unclear is what normal on the other side of the coronavirus will look like.

In the near future, the city and county have furloughed employees, the city has shut down most of its summer programs through the end of July and the Cortland Repertory Theater is closed for the season.

How and when will normal activities resume? We don’t know. But what will life be like when we can go about business as almostusual in public? We also don’t know.

But mentally and socially, life will change. Here are glimpses of what to expect.

‘Make or break time’

We are already experiencing profound psychological effects from the pandemic, and this effect will persist, said Charles Capanzano, a Cortland-based psychologist.

In the immediate future, people will still feel like they’re in “extended crisis mode,” he said, heightened by personal losses, from friends or family we may lose to the pandemic, down to the loss of simple shared pleasures, like playing pick-up basketball.

But these feelings last only so long before the crisis situation shades into everyday life. Most of us will develop coping mechanisms, but some of us won’t — at least not right away. The result — worsening mental health, increase in drug and alcohol abuse, domestic strife.

Capanzano normally has a full load of patients, and he doesn’t keep track of numbers, but he thinks his appointments and calls have increased. He’s also seeing an increase in negative symptoms in his clients — hopelessness, dysphoria, depression, anxiety, stress reactions, affective disorder, substance abuse.

Forced closeness “can put strains on relationships,” he said, and people with alreadyprecarious mental health are especially at risk.

“Unfortunately it can exacerbate many situations,” Capanzano said. “It’s sort of a make or break time. It needs to be closely monitored by the general population.”

But Capanzano is confident we will come out of this more resilient.

“People can learn to cope and do learn to cope,” he said.

But that requires making mental and physical health a priority, which may require new habits.

“I have a great concern where we are as a people,” Capanzano said. “This is for many of us our Pearl Harbor, our moment of stress. In my opinion we will be resilient, and we will come through this.”

‘We’re social beings’

The perception is that people turn savage in times of crisis — example, almost any TV show or movie about a major catastrophe. Some people get stranded on an island, and five minutes later it’s “Lord of the Flies.” But research shows this isn’t what happens, said Elizabeth Bittel, an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY Cortland. Instead, people tend to band together to help each other. She said she has already seen signs of that happening, and she expects it to continue.

“A lot of people are improvising to create networks to help their neighbors,” she said.

And not just help – also meet with each other, or learn, or even socialize. Technology – the internet and increasingly video-conferencing particular – is making all of this possible, she said.

“We are not going to return to normal. We will not go back to the way things were directly before the pandemic. Society will change in fundamental ways,” Bittel said.

“This is going to be a very long drawn-out disaster,” she said, something that could drag on for more than a year, maybe two. “This disaster is unlike anything we have experienced collectively in modern America.”

This crisis is not affecting everyone equally, and existing social inequities are being thrown into high relief.

“Disasters tend to reveal society for what it is,” she said.

Mutual aid and collective action will persist, Bittel said, “as long as we can hold onto the fact that we are all in this together.” But if that sense of unity is fractured, antisocial rather than pro-social activity can be the result.

“We do have examples from history of what happens when people don’t trust their governments and how that contributes to the deterioration of communities,” she said.

So while she is generally optimistic about society using this crisis to improve itself and fix problems, “I’m also waiting to see what happens when we continue to be mismanaged and our trust continues to degrade,” Bittel said.

End times, good times

If you’ve caught an apocalyptic whiff in the air, you’re not alone. This mood of impending doom has been spreading, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Kim Haines-Eitzen, a professor of early Christianity at Cornell University.

“Everyone is in a state of fear and anxiety and feeling this oppressive weight,” she said.

This sense of catastrophe was also the pervasive mood among early Christians, she said. But that foreboding contained something brighter: Heaven.

“There is a kind of underlying hope in that ideology,” Haines- Eitzen said.

This goes right to the root of the word apocalypse, which, in ancient Greek, means a revealing of something hidden.

“It’s an unveiling of the way things are and the way things will be,” she said.

And this is exactly what’s happening now, Haines-Eitzen said. It may not seem dramatic because little things have slowly been introduced into our lives. But some are fairly dramatic, like the drop in noise that can be noticed even by city dwellers.

The anxiety and dread some of us may feel may actually push us to make things better, she said, by recognizing what’s wrong with the world, and working to do something about it.

At the drive-in

Some of the ways things may change may seem small, but they will certainly feel bigger once we’re out and about again. When we’re allowed out of our houses to do things other than shop or do essential work, what will we do to entertain ourselves?

Summer is just around the corner, but the usual big events involve a lot of people crammed together – concerts, festivals, sports events, movies in air-conditioned theaters. Even if people can congregate for these events, will they want to?

Discomfort and mild paranoia is likely to persist while the world lacks a coronavirus vaccine or effective treatment. That’s likely to change the face of community entertainment, possibly for a long time.

Ayden Wilber, director of operations for Greek Peak, came up with a simple solution out of the not-so-distant past: the drive-in.

They used to be all over the country, but these days they’re a throwback to a bygone era. Right now, Auburn and Unadilla are the closest towns with drive-in theaters. But as soon as state restrictions lift, Greek Peak will offer one in Virgil.

Technically, it’s not a drive-in – that’s a licensing and royalty issue, Wilber said. But the idea is similar: His workers have already set up a test screen and sound system at the ski resort’s activity center. Last week, they screened a video, using a digital projector previously used for corporate presentations. Everything worked fine.

They also have obtained approval to broadcast a lowwattage radio signal so theatergoers can pick up the audio on their car radios. Food could be ordered from Trax Pub and Grill, Greek Peak’s restaurant, and delivered to people’s vehicles.

“That way, people won’t have to get out of their cars,” he said.

Wilber said his workers will soon put up a better screen, and once they get the go-ahead from the state, Greek Peak will start offering family movies to a lot that can fit 30 to 40 vehicles.

“We want to get this up there for the community because everybody’s going kind of stir crazy,” he said. “The screen is already big as it is, but if this works out we might even go bigger.”

“I think everybody is looking to get out of their house at some point,” Wilber said. “It’s a safe activity too, for the time being.”