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Cautiously Optimistic (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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I participated in our Arkansas Business of the Year awards program on Wednesday — my 21st, I think, because I was sick one year — and it was weird. I know it was weird because that was the word I kept hearing from other attendees.

Our time-tested banquet formula had been carefully reimagined by our events manager, Tiffany Mattzela, and her team to preserve the excitement and celebration. Instead of one ballroom for 700 attendees, we were divided into two rooms of 125 each, and each had its own stage and own emcee. Instead of eight or 10 at a table, we had four or six. And the event was live-streamed, so that coworkers and friends — and our Legacy of Leadership honoree, Johnelle Hunt — could join by Zoom.

And for all of the Age of COVID technology and precautions, it still felt weirdly retro. It was weird to have something on my calendar after regular work hours. It was weird to be with other people, even though the tables were spaced far apart and had half as many place settings on them as usual. It was weird, as one of the finalists commented, to hear applause, even though the roar was nothing like the old days.

Last year’s Business of the Year banquet was the last event I went to before the pandemic demanded that we all change our lives, but it was already looming. I took a picture of the crowded room at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock and tweeted it with a hashtag that seems particularly cavalier a year later: #nofear.

I took the pandemic seriously from the get-go, but I clearly didn’t grasp what was coming. I knew our then-president was blowing smoke when he said the first 15 cases “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” but I believed that we would “flatten the curve.” At that point, I was tentatively planning summer trips; a year later, I’m not.

I can tell you for sure that, a year ago, I was not expecting more than half a million American deaths (and counting) from this new disease that we had never heard of a few weeks earlier. (Yes, I believe the numbers, because nothing else explains why there were almost 15% more deaths in 2020 than 2019. And because the funeral home directors that Assistant Editor Kyle Massey talked to for his story last month have felt the surge.)

And I can tell you for sure that I did not expect cheap, easy protective measures like wearing masks and maintaining social distance to become a front in the never-ending American culture war. Just one more data point confirming how very, very bad I am at predicting political behavior.

After all the heartbreak and disappointment, one thing is making me feel weirdly optimistic: the COVID vaccines. I’m not eligible yet, but my husband has had two shots. My in-laws have had theirs, as has the friend who came for a visit late last month. At a luncheon for the Business of the Year finalists, I sat with a married couple each of whom had had both shots.

Hundreds of people are still dying of this scourge every day — the seven-day average was below 2,000 last week for the first time in three months — but, as the Washington Post reported, “The happiest place in medicine is anywhere there is vaccine, and the happiest people in medicine are the ones plunging it into the arms of strangers.”

Gov. Hutchinson says he thinks he will be able to lift the statewide mask mandate — a misnomer, for sure — at the end of March. Since I don’t expect to have been jabbed (as the Brits say) by then, that seems overly optimistic to me. Still, just knowing that other people — loved ones and strangers — are protected is a cause for celebration.

The Business of the Year banquet last week felt like “perhaps the end of the beginning,” as Winston Churchill said during another very dark time in the world’s history. On Sunday we’ll move our clocks forward, and the arrival of occasional spring-like weather suggests porch-sitting — with friends and neighbors perhaps — in the near future. Life may never be exactly like it was in the time before COVID, but every inch toward normality is welcome.

And weird.

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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