COLUMN: Family gatherings resuming are the light at the end of the tunnel

Henry+Hernandez%2C+his+wife+Karina+Gonzalez+and+their+children+Jose+Sebastian%2C+2%2C+and+Laura%2C+6%2C+of+Colombia%2C+walk+towards+the+baggage+claim+area+at+Miami+International+Airport%2C+Friday%2C+May+28%2C+2021%2C+in+Miami.+The+couple+were+surprised+to+be+offered+the+Johnson+%26+Johnson+COVID-19+vaccine+upon+arrival+to+the+U.S.+It+is+their+first+overseas+trip+since+the+pandemic+began+last+year.+Florida%27s+Emergency+Management+Agency+is+running+the+program+through+Sunday.

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

Henry Hernandez, his wife Karina Gonzalez and their children Jose Sebastian, 2, and Laura, 6, of Colombia, walk towards the baggage claim area at Miami International Airport, Friday, May 28, 2021, in Miami. The couple were surprised to be offered the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine upon arrival to the U.S. It is their first overseas trip since the pandemic began last year. Florida’s Emergency Management Agency is running the program through Sunday.

Illinois is opening up, Chicago is opening up, America is opening up. After over a year of following Covid-19 protocols, states are starting to lift most restrictions that have been in place since March 2020 – with Illinois on pace to lift all capacity limits on June 11.

For a year, people have sacrificed a lot in order to protect themselves and the people around them. The things that seemed normal for a long time – attending a concert, sporting event or simply seeing your friends and family – were either fully restricted or were not recommended by health experts.

These restrictions are now being lifted, more and more states are returning to full capacity and life is starting to resemble some sort of normalcy.

With all of that and people continuing to get vaccinated, an important tradition is also returning: family gatherings. For many people, this is the lifeblood of their families, being able to meet together and create memories.

It’s something that has been lost for many families in the last year. There were pleas from local and national health experts to limit gatherings during last November and December, the two months when families meet to celebrate the holiday season.

It’s all starting to change now – and it’s a beautiful sight. In pre-pandemic life, my family — which includes about 20 people from my parents to grandparents to aunts and uncles and to cousins – would celebrate each Jewish holiday and each birthday together.

Those gatherings became a tradition in my family; it became something that would happen a couple of times a month. The venue or family hosting each gathering might change, but nobody ever missed a dinner as one big family.

In the last year, however, we have missed countless birthday and holiday celebrations. The last time we met as one big family was back in February 2020, celebrating my cousin’s and grandma’s birthdays. At the time, it didn’t seem like the last time we would all be together in one setting.

Since then a lot has changed. Those gatherings had to be put on hold. Like a lot of families, we didn’t visit each other for the majority of the pandemic, especially since a lot of people in my family would be vulnerable to negative effects of Covid-19.

So, we stayed away from each other for over a year to protect everyone in our family. We didn’t have the chance to celebrate the holidays and birthdays that we would normally celebrate in pre-pandemic life.

Even with all of the precautions my family has taken in the last year, we still have lost two family members due to Covid-19. My dad’s uncle passed away in January and another family member from my dad’s side also passed away in February, both with Covid-19 complications.

We have lost a lot in the last year. Nearly 600,000 people have died since the pandemic began 15 months ago. Families have been separated for a long time. This has undoubtedly been a hard year for millions of Americans.

But as we open up as a society and return to activities that we haven’t been able to do for a year, let’s not forget about the people we have lost because of this pandemic. We can always go to a sporting event or go watch our favorite band, but we will never be able to see some of our family members again.

I can’t wait to have another family gathering and get back to making more memories with them. But there will now be two empty seats at the dinner table when my family meets again. Those empty seats can’t be replaced with someone else.

But as we continue to remember all the people we have lost in the last year, there is finally some light at the end of a long and dark tunnel.