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Sonoma County residents anxious about steady community reopening

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Like many people in Sonoma County, Chelsea spent most of the last year in isolation from everyone beyond her household. She’s now venturing outside her family “bubble,” and it’s not easy.

When the 31-year-old Larkfield resident leaves her home, she’s anxious, hypervigilant of her surroundings and people near her.

“Every cough, every sneeze sounds like gunshots,” said Chelsea, who has a compromised immune system and asked that only her first name be used in this story to maintain her privacy. “I’ll find myself hyperaware of people as I’m moving about ... (feeling) unsure, bothered a lot of times because even the simplest things, people refuse to do.”

Though she’s not a confrontational person, she recently scolded a man for not wearing a face covering while he walked through Healdsburg Plaza, loudly and repeatedly sneezing. She said the park was packed with people, including families, elderly people and children running around, everyone vying for space.

“It’s frustrating because we’ve been through this for over a year now and people are still being inconsiderate and just not thinking,” she said of those not closely adhering to public health safety measures.

Chelsea’s reaction to the county’s steady reopening and relaxing pandemic restrictions on businesses and public life is not uncommon, mental health experts say. Residents are experiencing anxiety, uncertainty and fear as the pandemic wanes.

Their worries could heighten in mid-May when Sonoma County likely will be allowed by the state to ease even more limitations on community activities if coronavirus transmission rates remain low. While some people are eager to have public health rules loosened or lifted so they can begin to resume their pre-pandemic lives, others are not quite ready for “normal” life.

“We’re all in the same storm but in different boats and different places in the river,” said Dr. Stuart Buttlaire, regional director of behavioral health and addiction medicine at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.

“We’ve spent the last year in lockdowns and isolated from family and friends and the urge is to kind of move into normality very quickly, but taking it slow is not such a bad thing.”

There are people, he said, having trouble sleeping, experiencing stress, anxiety and even depression as the gears of normalcy begin to reengage. The pandemic’s toll on the local community since March 2020 is inescapable: nearly 30,000 people in the county have tested positive for the deadly and highly contagious virus and 312 residents have lost their lives to complications of COVID-19.

“Some people just lost relatives or close friends and others have fought the disease themselves or have people around them who have,” Buttlaire said. “So not everyone is in the same place and they’re not ready to celebrate and jump back into the social scene.”

Helen Perez-Hyslop, 63, of Sana Rosa, is among those still taking precaution. During the pandemic, Perez-Hyslop said she was “extremely careful” not to expose herself to the virus, avoiding friends and family and always wearing an N95 respirator mask.

“The few times that I would go into the grocery store during the pandemic my heart would race,” she said. “I would think I would be laser focused on what I needed to buy and how I could strategically get out of the store in the least amount of time.”

Now, Perez-Hyslop said, she’s able to go into a store wearing a face covering and more “leisurely” buy things.

Doreen Van Leeuwen, a Santa Rosa marriage and family therapist who specializes in disaster mental health, said the pandemic is only the latest catastrophe to strike North Coast residents’ emotional and psychological well-being, wearing down people’s resilience.

Van Leeuwen said certain people are experiencing varying degrees of vulnerability, depending on their own circumstances. Those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are living with less worry about catching the infectious disease. And even then, the prospect of new coronavirus variants bringing on another wave of cases locally, as they have in other parts of the country and world, is a real possibility, medical experts have said.

“The fact that there’s variants is really scary,” she said. “There’s a real sense of not feeling in control. People think about what they can control and they say, ’When I’m home, that’s something I can control.’”

There are a number of behavioral therapies, such as practicing mindfulness, visualization and breathing therapies that can be useful for reducing fear and anxiety. Van Leeuwen recommended people surround themselves with others who are like minded.

“If you’re pretty cautious, visit with a friend who is also very cautious,” she said.

Laura Strom, another family therapist, said some of the physical things people may experience when going outside their bubble include sweating, anxiety, diarrhea, wakeful sleep and depression.

“They need to take it slow, not do too much getting out right away,” she said. “Also try to engage in really good self care, doing a practice like yoga or meditation ... or those things that help them regulate their nervous system.”

On Friday, Shirley Bennett, 72, of Santa Rosa, was visiting Howarth Park with Yvonne Mathieu, 75, of Sebastopol, one of the few things the friends feel safe doing in public. “I do follow Dr. (Anthony) Fauci and he’s not going into restaurants yet,” Bennett said of the nationally renowned infectious disease expert who has advised several presidents on such matters.

Bennett described easing back into normalcy as both familiar and strange. “It kind of feels like going back to a house that you grew up in, but it feels different,” she said.

Mathieu said she went into a clothing store, with her face masked, for the first time just a day before going to the park with her friend.

“It was the first time I had been in a store that wasn’t a grocery store,” she said. “I felt jubilant. It was one of my favorite stores and I was very happy to be there. But I’m still not going into movie theaters, I’m still being very cautious.”

Bill Carter, director of Sonoma County’s behavioral health division, acknowledged many people will suffer a level of anxiety at this time when businesses and activities are starting to reopen and resume. But he said residents, particularly children, who are normally more introverted and usually less social may feel it to a greater degree.

“Practice going out to activities that are less stressful,” Carter said. “So maybe you don’t jump into a party with a bunch of people you don’t know.”

It’s important that people do not set unrealistic expectations, while being aware of negative thoughts that can run rampant during a crisis, he said.

“If we don’t monitor ourselves our minds will go negative, like they will just spin and go on automatic pilot, worrying about the worst,” Carter said.

A month before the pandemic disease arrived last March, Chelsea, the Larkfield artist and illustrator, packed her possessions and moved to Los Angeles to try and break into television and animation. She stuck it out there as long as she could, but in September she returned to Sonoma County and moved in with her parents.

The pandemic has chipped away at her trust in people and their willingness to cooperate for the common good. She recalled scenes over the past 13 months such as people “out for themselves” at grocery stores and teenagers joking loudly that the pandemic was ridding the world of grandparents.

Normal for her wasn’t that great before the pandemic, she said.

“I want us to wake up and make things better,” Chelse said. “I don’t want it to be slow and then ramp up, and then get back to the exhaustive pace that we were all at. I don’t know if going slow is going to help with that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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