Dwanda Waltower's face mask couldn't hide the joy in her eyes.
For too many months, the 62-year-old grandmother sat in self-imposed exile from her family, friends and church in hopes of keeping the deadly coronavirus at bay. But on a spring afternoon in Brooklyn Park, a fully vaccinated Waltower was back in the sunshine, celebrating the day with her 2-year-old grandson as he raced from one playground slide to another.
"You're wearing me out," Waltower told him. "But this is what I missed, so it's OK."
After a year of lockdowns and losses, a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine is lifting spirits for thousands of Minnesotans, offering hope that daily life will soon get back to some semblance of normal.
As the risk of illness or worse dramatically diminishes with each vaccination, many are heading back to church or the ballpark. Some are rescheduling weddings or organizing family reunions or preparing to run marathons. Still others, like Waltower, are planning to travel, too, while basking in the glow of simple pleasures, such as spending an hour or two playing with a grandchild in a neighborhood park.
"You have no idea how much weight was lifted when I got my vaccine," Waltower said. "I couldn't have felt any better than if I had won the lottery."
Through Saturday, more than 1.1 million Minnesotans — about 20% of the state's total population — had been fully vaccinated, meaning they had received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or a single dose of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But as COVID-19 restrictions ease statewide and more and more people move about, confirmed cases and hospitalizations are rising, too, prompting many, including Waltower, to remain cautious.
Much as she has done for the past year, Waltower is strictly following the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious-disease expert.
"Papa Fauci — I call him Papa Fauci — said to wear two masks because of the [virus] variants," said Waltower, who cares for four special needs women in a group home. "So whatever Papa Fauci and the CDC says, Dwanda do."
The state's uptick in positive cases, however, hasn't stopped many who are fully vaccinated or close to being so from making ambitious plans.
"I'm not worried about getting COVID because I'm not too old and I'm relatively healthy," said 60-year-old John Tantzen, an Eagan resident who recently got his first vaccine shot. "Getting vaccinated is the right thing to do. As soon as we all do, we can get back to normal."
If all goes according to plan, Tantzen will run the Twin Cities Marathon this fall for the 40th straight year — a streak he kept alive by running last year's 26.2-mile virtual event alone on woodland trails.
He also sees trips to the ballpark, movie theaters and maybe the opera in his future — a contrast to all the down time he spent at home in 2020.
For others, vaccination has revived hopes for travel after a year of mostly staying put.
Later this month, Waltower plans to board a plane to Las Vegas to celebrate her aunt's 79th birthday. In June, she'll travel again, this time to see grandchildren in North Carolina.
"It all means the world to me," she said.
Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler, a Minnesota-based flight deal and travel website, said more than 1 million people a day across the United States are now taking flights compared to 100,000 people per day at this time last year. Spring break, combined with a restlessness from being homebound for so long, is likely pushing those numbers up to some degree, he said.
He and other travel experts believe the rise in vaccinations has encouraged even more people to book a flight now or in the near future.
"We're hearing from a lot more of those 65-plus than we've ever heard from," Potter said. "A lot of folks wait until retirement age to start traveling. Then not to be able to travel or do much of anything for a year just makes people all the more eager."
'Glimmer of hope'
Allyson Suazo, a 32-year-old nurse from Blaine, is eager to head to Florida with her 7-year-old daughter to see Disney World and the ocean. But now isn't the time, she said.
Despite being among the health care workers who were vaccinated earlier this year, she isn't altering her life much in part because she saw firsthand the suffering of COVID-19 patients at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, where she works. She also knows she could inadvertently pass on the virus despite being vaccinated.
"If I exposed one person to COVID unknowingly, it would devastate me," she said.
Suazo is cautiously expanding her post-vaccination world, meeting up with co-workers who've been vaccinated and signing up her daughter for private piano lessons.
"There's a level of comfort being vaccinated, but it's not a free-for-all to return to pre-COVID life," she said.
Still, the vaccine has lightened the heaviness of the past year, said Heather Kamia, a St. Paul resident who received her first shot several weeks ago.
"We didn't live in fear, but we lived in a very heightened vigilance," said Kamia, the mother of two children, one with Down syndrome. "You cover every base and take every precaution."
Her home became her new office for her nonprofit work and her husband, Ibrahim, adhered to strict protocols when he returned from his hospital pharmacy job. He sprayed diluted bleach on his shoes, sanitized everything he touched in his car and refused to hug his daughters until he showered and changed clothes.
Now vaccinated, he still takes those extraordinary measures to protect his unvaccinated daughters, ages 6 and 9.
But life feels different from a year ago, Kamia said. She can now plan a girl's night out with a vaccinated friend — an outdoor visit but with no masks. She goes into the office sometimes and her children are back in school after transferring from a public to a charter school with smaller classes.
A recent excursion to Target with her kids was like going to Disneyland, she said.
"They made a beeline to the toy aisles where they looked at all the new toys," she said.
Come July, they hope to visit her parents in Connecticut.
"I finally feel there's a glimmer of hope," Kamia said. "I can look to the future." But it's not necessarily life as it was pre-COVID, she said. Chaotic school mornings and work commutes added more stress to her pre-pandemic life than she ever realized.
"I want a hybrid normal," she said. "I want less commuting time and more family time."
Seeing what's possible
For Mary Wadlow, 49, of Apple Valley, getting the vaccine means she can finally hug her 73-year-old mother sans mask.
A five-day Christmas visit to her mother's home in Kansas City, Mo., turned into a 25-day endeavor after adding up 10 days of isolation before and after travel.
Now that her mother is fully vaccinated and Wadlow soon will be, the two are planning an August trip to New England.
Wadlow said she will continue to take precautions, but vaccination means she'll no longer be compelled to wear an N95 mask and face shield on a plane.
"A regular mask will do," she said. "This is the beginning that life can begin again."
That's exactly how Farmington High School band teacher Erin Holmes felt last week when she stood on the podium in front of one of the school's jazz ensembles and raised her hands for the first downbeat. After a roller coaster year that toggled between distance and hybrid learning, the band was finally together again.
As Holmes' hands came down, the band played a singular note as one.
"It gave me goose bumps because we haven't done that in a year," the vaccinated 43-year-old mother of three boys said. "There's a sense that we're getting through this."