A short walk through downtown Winston will dissuade any who thinks we’re still in pandemic lockdown. Yes, you still see masks, and most businesses have changed the signs to something more accommodating like, “Well, if you’re vaccinated, I guess it’s okay to take your mask off.” But who are we kidding? No one is wearing them anymore. Walking by Finnigan’s Wake, you see the tables are pushed closer together, the bar seating increased almost back to full capacity. A bustle surrounds the place almost like the Before times and besides the employees serving the tables out front, nary a mask.

There’s a couple, mats in hand, walking up the sidewalk to their yoga class in the afternoon sun. One has her mask on.

A pod of scooters carrying a group of 20-somethings flashes by, silently weaving from the sidewalk to the street, aimless, drifting drivers on their way to whatever strikes their fancy. Maybe there’s a show somewhere. A bassline rumbles down the street and it sounds suspiciously like there might be one.

But the sun’s still out! A year and a half ago, most shows wouldn’t start before 9:30 p.m., when the attendees (and the band) would be half in the bag already. That’s still true, but everything operates earlier now. The “New Normal” we heard so much about last year is now some brand of “New New Normal.”

A partially masked family walks past, Mast General parcels in hand, the two children gripping in a death vise their small paper bags overflowing with gummy worms and hard candy. Norman Rockwell gone Twilight Zone. The father looks up and down the street, probably trying to remember where he parked. During lockdown and restrictions, the only people we saw were the regular residents and the workers of downtown (those who still worked). Today, almost five months into vaccinations and lessened restrictions, groups are everywhere: tourists, day-trippers, recent college grads and their parents trying to find a restaurant.

There are still remnants, though. Some distancing still exists. This new bustle, while busy, still isn’t quite at pre-pandemic standards.

A turn down Fourth Street reveals the bassline’s culprit: an old El Dorado at the stoplight pumping out Baby Huey funk. The setting sun lengthens the shadows as the patio lights turn on at the surrounding restaurants. There’s a line out the door at the pizza shop and a small crowd posted in front of Tate’s, their laughter echoing up the street. Camino’s denizens sit out front, laptops open, books devoured over lattes in the upcoming twilight. The crowds here are more plentiful than in the Arts District. Here, it feels close to what we considered normal before the world shut down.

There’s a band in Bull’s Tavern setting up for the night. Recreation Billiards has a line of people down the bar. Masks are minimal. This is fine too. Numbers going down, the lessened risks are all welcome news.

What’s this feeling? There’s emotion here. The general malaise and anxiety has been replaced by some form of relief, catharsis and, yes, maybe a little guilt. We’re not through this, not by a long shot, even though there’s a fair amount of people acting like we’re back to normal.

It’s comforting to see this, it’s good to run into people you didn’t even know you missed. It’s almost like the past year didn’t happen and we’re still not done dealing with it.

The sun is down now, the streetlights pop on, their orange glow bathing the thoroughfare. A cyclist with hundreds of multicolored LEDs covering his bike, and himself, floats down the avenue like a Christmas tree gone rogue, a modern-day Paul Revere signaling the arrival of a new day.

Maybe it is.

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