Weekend festivals signal a return to post-pandemic normal

On a weekend with temperatures hovering at the intersection of spring and summer, the Waterloo Region bounced back to post-COVID normal with an array of outdoor festivals and the promise of more to come.

“We’re so happy to be back,” enthused Shannon Postel, herding five of her six kids from Kitchener’s Vogelsang Green after a morning of face painting, popcorn and a morass of cascading ripples billed as “the ultimate water table.”

“I feel very comfortable. It feels like COVID is over.”

This has been said before, often prematurely, with great regret.

But with key indicators trending downward, most Ontario mask mandates lifted and the region’s largest remaining vaccination clinic closed on the weekend after 16 months, the mood on the streets seemed buoyant, with a dose of wary relief.

“My mental health is more important than my physical health,” insisted Postel, who ended up in hospital after contracting COVID while pregnant in February.

She’s fully vaccinated, as are her children, who were home-schooled for two years. They followed every rule and regulation.

“We did everything right and still got COVID,” she says. “It was like it can’t be prevented. Now it’s time to see people again.”

Eager to be back in a public setting, her older daughter is nonetheless tentative after two years of lockdowns.

“It’s just a little awkward sometimes,” notes 12-year-old Peyton Postel.

“We haven’t been this close to people in almost three years.”

“It’s not 100 per cent back to normal,” agrees Drew Ripley, the local entertainer who supplied the water table.

“Pre-COVID, my summer would be jammed. Right now four to six weeks is as far as people are going.”

Over at Goudies Lane, at a free outdoor painting class with 18 all-ages participants, Camille Krause is hefting her recent newborn while her four-year-old paints a masterpiece.

“It feels really good to see people enjoy being outside and together,” she says as daughter Renée adds another stab of blue.

“It’s weird being around strangers, but it feels nice. I feel like we’re in the ‘learn to live with it’ stage.

“We’re not stopping ourselves from doing anything anymore,” points out husband Andrew Krause. “We’re trying to live our lives like we did before, with safety considerations.”

An hour later this same family was spotted on Gaukel Street, on the fringes of Victoria Park, for Bike Festivities, a city-sponsored event advertised as “a fun and safe space for racialized communities to experience the joys of cycling.”

With performing acts, food booths, a bike rodeo and a clinic to teach first-timers how to navigate on two wheels, it too boasted a retro-2019 feeling.

“I got to ride my first bike today in 27 years,” notes Fadhwa Yusuf, a system navigator with the African Family Revival Organization (AFRO), who partnered with the city for the event.

“It was so cool. It was history in the making.”

Challenged to recreate the moment for a photo, she gingerly gets on a bike, with help from event organizer Kyle Gingerich Hiebert of Cycling into the Future, and sets off tentatively across the parking lot.

“I didn’t know how hard it was,” confides Yusuf, who moved to Canada from East Africa in 1996 and hosts an inspirational online talk show.

“We come from a culture where we don’t learn to ride, especially women. It brings that confidence back. I can’t teach people to get rid of fear if I’m never doing it myself. And it’s so nice — the human connection. Nothing beats that.”

Meanwhile, at the 40th annual Greek Food Fest, a jam-packed Waterloo gathering of strollers, dancers and souvlaki-stuffed schmoozers shouting “OPA!,” the long, winding lineups at food booths have taken an almost nostalgic quality.

“Our community has been craving coming back together again,” notes Kitchener Center MP Mike Morrice, on hand with local dignitaries for the festival’s opening ceremonies on Saturday.

“Whether it’s Greek Fest, Tri-Pride fest or university convocations, to be back in person again is such a gift.”

Even to those you might not expect.

“I was wearing a mask long before COVID,” notes Michael Guy, who has cystic fibrosis and can’t go out in public without one. “I don’t have a lot of lung function left.”

Nevertheless, he’s here, with hundreds of others, happy to be out in the community.

“We just wanted to get out and enjoy some good food,” he says. “This doesn’t cause me any anxiety.”

For festival co-chair Maria Menounos, who says members of the St. Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church began planning during the COVID chill in January, the turnout is beyond her wildest expectations.

“We didn’t know what to expect or if people would embrace this,” she says. “But this is a ‘Before Pandemic’ crowd. It feels like we’re back to some sort of normal.”

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