The liberation of Richard McWalters was in full bloom as he strolled 14th Street NW the other day, his nose and jaw newly freed of the mask and constant worry that had shrouded him for more than a year.
McWalters, 64, a project manager who was recently vaccinated, said he felt a measure of guilt as he imagined passersby “looking at me, thinking I’m an idiot for not wearing a mask.”
But the pleasure — oh the pleasure! — of the spring sun warming his chin.
“It sure feels good,” he said. “It’s hard to believe we lived that way for so long.”
Step by tentative step, as vaccination rates rise, coronavirus cases fall and officials slowly ease restrictions across the Washington region, a discernible approximation of what is commonly known as normal is taking hold.
After a year in which humanity largely vanished behind closed doors, motorists can now find themselves stuck in traffic; passengers have more company on buses and Metro cars; and the unmasked are no longer a rarity, at least in parks and on sidewalks.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Monday set May 21 as the day when the city will end capacity and activity restrictions for myriad places, including restaurants, public and private gyms, and public recreation centers, libraries and offices. Bars, nightclubs and sports palaces such as Nationals Park will lose their restrictions June 11 — although indoors, masking will remain the rule of the day.
Home is still the center of daily life for many, with a preponderance of offices closed and most children attending school via Zoom several days a week. In many neighborhoods, the masked far outnumber those whose faces are bare.
But on U Street on a recent Saturday night, the sidewalks were crowded outside Ben’s Chili Bowl and Nellie’s Sports Bar, and there was even a line to get into El Rey, a bar featuring what it touts as a “margarita garden.”
And on a sunny afternoon, here were Laura and Mike Baguio visiting a museum — the Smithsonian’s just-reopened Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly — something they had not done in who knows how long.
“It’s a little strange to see people,” said Laura, 64, among the 2,000 visitors who got timed-entry tickets Thursday.
“I’m still anxious being in public,” she acknowledged from behind her mask, taking in her surroundings with the tentativeness of a visitor to an alien planet. “You don’t know who’s vaccinated.”
Shelton Adams, a retired mail clerk who lives in Silver Spring, evinced no such trepidation as he walked toward Nationals Park later that day, grateful he could return to his regular seat in Section 311, eat a hot dog, drink a Bud and score the game, as he has done since 2005.
Because of the cool weather and fears of covid-19, Adams said, his regular seatmates — “John, Bob and Jimmy” — have not yet returned to the park. That means there’s no one to cheer on his self-styled renditions of a public address announcer introducing pinch hitters and relievers.
“You know, like, ‘Now pitching for the Washington Nationals! Number 67! Kyle Finnegan!’” Adams said, lowering his mask to amplify his baritone. “It feels weird not having them here.”
What’s weird for Kelly Campbell is walking her dog maskless without feeling like she has to defend herself, now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed its outdoor dress code for the vaccinated.
During the winter, when she went outside alone with nothing on her face, a jogger ran by and sneered, “ ‘Nice mask!’ or something like that,” recalled Campbell, a program specialist who lives in Columbia Heights.
Then and now, she said, her choice of going maskless was dictated by scientific evidence that suggested it wasn’t necessary if she was outdoors and distanced from others.
“It shouldn’t have bothered me, but no one likes to feel judged,” she said. “I’m still looking around and thinking, ‘Are people judging me?’ ”
Marcie Cohen, a retiree who was vaccinated in March, wore a mask as she walked on L Street the other day, her black-and-white hoop earrings matching her black-and-white striped shirt.
The street was empty except for two other pedestrians.
Cohen said she hates her mask for fogging up her glasses and forcing her to inhale her own breath. But she knows of no other way to protect herself.
When she sees someone without a mask, Cohen said, she walks up to them and pulls on her own to remind them of what she considers their civic obligation.
“You can say I’m paranoid, I guess,” she said. “But I want to be careful. Extra careful.”
Better than at home alone
When he went onstage at the recently reopened DC Improv the other night, comedian Steve Byrne’s view was of an audience spread across 25 tables, each separated by a distance of more than six feet.
“It looked like a great night in Akron,” he said, but “a horrible night in D.C.”
No, but seriously folks: The laughs, Byrne said, suggested that his audience was delighted to have a night out.
When he had arrived in Washington to perform, Byrne said, he “felt like I was the only person on the planet Earth.” His favorite museums were closed, as was the downtown bar he likes to frequent after performances. He wound up at a Wawa at 1 a.m., treating himself to a pretzel and a hoagie.
“It was the only place to go,” he said. “I was kind of disheartened.”
A survey by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington suggests that restaurants have begun to add staff and that revenue losses have slowed since the winter, the nadir of the pandemic.
Victura Park, an outdoor beer and wine garden at the Reach outside the Kennedy Center, found a timely way to generate publicity Thursday when it teamed up with the city to host a vaccination site. “Take the shot, DC — Get a Beer,” read the promotion tweeted by Bowser, offering a free cup of cold ale after a dose of Johnson & Johnson.
A total of 162 shots were administered, according to Victura Park, including to Beulah Brown, 84, who showed up in a baseball cap bedecked with fake jewels.
“Loose like jello!” a health-care worker said, imploring Brown to relax as she awaited the needle.
Everyone applauded when she was done.
“Oh, definitely,” Brown replied when an event organizer offered her a ticket for a free beer. She later pulled down her mask for what she said was her first sip of ale in years.
Downtown, at Shelly’s Back Room, the venerable cigar bar on F Street, owner Robert Materazzi said newly vaccinated patrons have been calling to ask if they can come back to smoke. Business has picked up modestly, though he groused that Bowser was still limiting indoor capacity to 25 percent of occupancy.
The other day, he said, health inspectors showed up and warned that his patrons could not smoke indoors — or even at the six outdoor tables he set up.
He is making no promises.
“If I had paid attention to the smoking protocol for the past year, we would have been closed now and boarded up,” he said. “We’re not encouraging people to smoke. But if we don’t see them, we can’t control them. The fact is, people come to Shelly’s to smoke.”
Justin Russell, 50, a lobbyist who lives in Pentagon City, is among the devoted. Before the pandemic, he said, he spent “more time at Shelly’s than at my own house,” five or six nights a week.
After his vaccination in early April, Russell called Materazzi, who told him to come back. His old haunt, he discovered, was adapting to pandemic rules. When he lit his cigar, servers told him he couldn’t smoke, even at an outdoor table.
“I look at them and I say, ‘Okay,’ ” he said. Then he resumes smoking.
If not quite normal, he said, a night at Shelly’s is “normalesque” and a big improvement over staying home alone.
At long last, laughter
Wrapped in a pale purple ball gown, Sherlyn Estrada was the center of attention the other day as she headed to take pictures for her quinceañera with her family at National Harbor. No one appeared to be heeding signs reminding them to keep their masks on and stay six feet apart.
“You look beautiful,” a woman called out.
“Can I take your photo?” another woman asked when the Estradas passed the Redstone American Grill.
Sherlyn nodded and smiled.
When the diners learned she was turning 15, everyone burst into a chorus of “Happy Birthday!”
Nearby, Michael Smith, 36, was arriving at National Harbor in a water taxi. During the trip across the Potomac River, a crew member had yelled at him to raise the mask he kept lowering so he could smile at a friend snapping photos of him.
Smith, a computer science student who was vaccinated after contracting covid-19 this winter, was too thrilled to care. A ride on the Ferris wheel was next, followed by dinner at the Walrus Oyster & Ale House.
“The sun is shining and I’m moving again,” he said, his tone suggesting the excitement of a man reclaiming something lost.
If nothing else, the pandemic inspired a new appreciation for rituals as mundane as shopping for groceries, sitting in a movie theater, and socializing with friends without the threat of contracting a lethal disease.
For months, Chris Gomez, 29, a fundraiser who lives in Adams Morgan, stopped jogging, unwilling to sweat beneath a mask. Once he was vaccinated, and the CDC relaxed mask guidelines, Gomez put his sneakers back on. He now runs with a wrap that he raises over his nose and mouth as a courtesy if he passes anyone.
“It was a relief,” he said of the CDC change, pausing during a run through his neighborhood. “It’s nice not to have the pressure of having to wear it.”
When bass player Andrew Musselman, 33, met up with other musicians to play jazz in Dupont Circle, they realized that everyone in their group had been vaccinated.
Off came their masks.
“You think about what we have all gone through, all these months, and now there’s the possibility of normal return,” Musselman said during a break. “It’s awesome. It’s surreal.”
A couple of weeks ago, Matt Miller, 52, a musician who lives in Shaw, played basketball with friends for the first time in a year. Their games had been a ritual for more than two decades.
Back on the court, they were overcome with laughter, ridiculing one another’s play. Afterward, they went out for beers. “We were just so happy to be together again,” Miller said. “It was all about reestablishing our brotherhood.”
For most of the pandemic, Darrin Sudderth, 54, a bartender who suffers from an autoimmune syndrome, was terrified of reestablishing any connection to anyone. “I thought I was surely dead,” he said. “It was like the zombie apocalypse. Don’t go outside. Don’t breathe.”
His covid rituals included never leaving his Adams Morgan apartment without a mask, washing his groceries in the bathtub, watching hours of television and “getting drunk every night with bourbon and more bourbon.”
After the first of his vaccine shots, Sudderth began to relax. The other night, he found himself at a bar with a couple of friends.
As the night wore on, he even lowered his mask.
He drank Jameson’s, told stories and laughed for what seemed like the first time in forever.
An old routine was starting to feel familiar again.
Rachel Chason and Emily Davies contributed to this report.