Robert Tompkins reckons he's sung upward of 50 karaoke songs since his grand return to Otter's Saloon two weeks ago. He's known as "Mad Hatter" here at the northeast Minneapolis joint, an oasis of a tiny dive bar where he can finally release more than a year's worth of pent-up pandemic anxiety.
"It's cathartic," said Tompkins, 45. Then he belted out Gordon Lightfoot beneath disco lights for the 35 jubilant strangers gathered Thursday night.
The Twin Cities are regaining their vibrancy, as the pandemic wanes and people resume urban rituals that suddenly feel extraordinary. Thanks to high vaccination rates, summer weather and the lifting of Minneapolis and St. Paul mask mandates, June has marked a reanimation of Minnesota's metropolitan core after more than a year of COVID-induced inactivity.
The signs of revival are everywhere — a whiff of fried food at Como Town amusement park, a melody floating from Lowertown Sounds live concerts, a line of cars once again circling the North Loop in futile search of street parking.
"It's just starting to feel alive again," Mike Tober said of Minneapolis while on a first date at Otter's with a girl he ran into at karaoke last weekend. After months of mostly dating through apps, the pair joked that they "met in the wild" on their first nights out in a long time.
That same day, Kara Nickolay got her nails done at Nailish in south Minneapolis ahead of a weekend trip to Atlanta. "There's something in the air," she said.
The 25-year-old was celebrating a friend's birthday, while a client two seats away booked her first manicure in a year for a wedding in Alexandria, Minn. The spa's receptionist wants to remove the sign on the door advertising walk-in appointments because she's had to turn so many customers away in recent weeks.
The pandemic and civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd sparked ominous predictions about the future of American cities. Apartment vacancies in Minneapolis and St. Paul rose in 2020 after many residents sought more space or a change of scenery when they stopped working in offices.
One hub of nightlife, Uptown Minneapolis remains in crisis after protests over the law enforcement shooting of Winston Smith.
"For the last year, there was no benefit to living in the city. The whole idea is you want proximity to things and want to be a part of the community," said Tony Verdegan, who lives in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill neighborhood. "All those advantages that I built my life around — they weren't really advantages anymore."
Still, the 46-year-old never considered moving away. As he chatted with friends in the beer line in St. Paul's Mears Park, which is hosting concerts and food trucks each Thursday evening through August, Verdegan was reminded of why he moved to the city in the first place.
Dominique Williams and Tom Kovaleski kept their young daughters, Alexandra and Izzy, at home for the school year. To celebrate the start of summer, they took off work Wednesday for the St. Paul family's first major outing since the start of the pandemic: a trip to Como Zoo.
Kovaleski said his family is still taking some health precautions until the girls, ages 6 and 4, can get vaccinated. They aren't going into others' homes and don't yet feel comfortable hosting out-of-state relatives.
"But it just feels great to be out and about again," he said.
"And we got hot dogs!" said Alexandra, who was also looking forward to a Dairy Queen slushie on the ride home.
Others, too, have felt reluctant or uneasy about making a full-fledged return to their pre-COVID social lives. Karrie Hansen didn't wear a mask at her salon in Minneapolis' Hiawatha neighborhood Wednesday because she knew her client, Anne Scheible, is vaccinated and limiting her exposure to others.
"I am not out of my bubble yet, except for here," Hansen said.
"It's just going to take time," Scheible replied. "We built up these new habits, you know, like carrying masks everywhere. I still don't leave the house without one just in case."
Back in St. Paul, Ryan Hardtke is glad to no longer be wearing a mask during boxing classes at Element Gym.
"No more sucking in your own sweat," he said.
The 30-year-old has seen attendance multiply at classes this month. Some old-timers feel comfortable returning to prepare for competitive boxing, while others have sought out a new workout routine with a coach and classmates for motivation.
The roughly 20 members at the Thursday lunch-break session greeted each other before warmups and chatted as they went to sanitize weights after a drill.
"We probably do a much better job of wiping stuff down," Element manager Phil Sherman remarked. "That's a habit that's sticking around."
Out of hibernation
Jen Nylin owns two Minneapolis boutiques and usually sees business slow down after the start-of-summer rush. Not this year.
"It was like people were hibernating," she said. "They haven't shopped in over a year. They're coming out and making up for all that lost time."
Many women wore wedges or heels in the North Loop around dinnertime Thursday, while men donned crisp button-downs. Laurine Speltz held onto Denis Ryono's arm as they crossed the street from the Monte Carlo restaurant, where they'd eaten dinner with friends Bob and Dee Oliveira.
"This area was a ghost town," Dee Oliveira said, gesturing to the now-bustling sidewalks and filled parking spaces.
Both retired couples have lived downtown for a few years after downsizing from Maplewood and Princeton, N.J. They've become more worried about crime since the pandemic and Floyd's death sparked an increase in violence, and they're also still waiting for theaters and a few favorite Nicollet Mall restaurants to reopen.
Though rush hour has returned to many Twin Cities highways, downtown remained sleepy during the Thursday evening commute.
"I think the big thing for downtown is to get the office workers back," Ryono said. "It's not going to be the same as before, but I think the more people there are, the safer it will feel, the more restaurants will open — all that good stuff will happen."
Elsewhere it's already happening. Cars and scooters whizzed past the friends as they prepared to head home, and a young couple holding hands meandered by. Jazz music started playing in the alley behind the Hewing Hotel, where a few dozen dressed-up diners gathered for a pop-up event, and peals of laughter and clinking glasses filled out the soundtrack of a city that is lively again.