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Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sign promoting mask wearing is seen outside of the Trustee's office at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday on Feb. 10, 2021.

We keep hearing about how we're "getting back to normal" in these not-quite-yet post-pandemic days.

If "back to normal" means that everyone who was grousing about having to wear a mask is now perfectly happy to grouse about the new CDC guidance that says we don't have to wear masks if we've been vaccinated, then — yeah, we're back to normal. Back to our normal complaining.

And how should we process the news about Tennessee and Georgia dropping the federal COVID-19 relief for unemployment? Our governors and conservative politicians say employers can't get enough workers to come back to work for minimum- or low-wage jobs. But another reality is that many of those workers still have children at home. Schools are closing for the summer and Chattanooga's youth and family recreation centers are still shut. Additionally, while many were unemployed, they spent the last many months trying to better their education and job chances. Why shouldn't they try to hold out for a better work opportunity?

Meanwhile, Chattanooga area food pantries are looking to fill a food-insecurity need they expect to last for years.

Jan Ivey, missions coordinator for Burks United Methodist Church in Hixson, said the church launched its "community cupboard" stand in the parking lot when the congregation saw local needs. And Jennifer Fritts, who oversees grants and communications for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, told the Times Free Press that all 20 counties the organization serves are seeing more food insecurity, as well. The pandemic put nearly 162,000 at risk of going hungry, she said, an increase of more than 15% compared to previous years.

"Unemployment has increased, groceries are at a 50-year high, disruptions in the supply chain are creating an economic crisis unlike anything since the Great Depression," Fritts said in an email. "One in five of our neighbors in our service area may struggle with hunger this year."

Back to normal? Not yet — despite another story in the paper this past week about Chattanooga home prices shyrocketing as sales grow.

"The median price of homes sold in Chattanooga during the first three months of the year jumped 17.5% from the same period a year earlier, rising to a record high median price of $232,300 for a typical single-family home," according to real estate data.

That's partly because mortgage rates are low but it's also partly because Chattanooga is an affordable market. Even though our home prices were up by an average of $34,600, our median home price was still 27.2% below the nationwide average in 2021's first quarter and well below nearby markets such as Nashville, Atlanta and Huntsville.

Part of the spike — especially for the cost of new homes — is a spike in lumber costs. Partly thanks to tariffs, partly thanks to COVID and partly thanks to missed market forecasts that banked on COVID slowing down construction when in fact whole families being cooped up at home drove the need for new construction and remodeling. That overcharged housing market kept the cash registers ringing at Home Depot, and the company's profit nearly doubled from a year ago, according to market reports.

Rents went up, too. The wealth gap widened. Those who could spend, did. Those who couldn't got priced out of their homes or could afford less food.

Back to normal? No. That will be a long time coming — if there is such a thing as "normal" any more.

The only thing we can count on is that the grousing will go on.

We get that. We grouse, too. Just last Saturday, we wrote of the new CDC mask guidance: "The trouble is, two-thirds of Chattanooga-area folks are not fully vaccinated, and apparently many of them won't ever be. What's more, many of some-odd 250,000 unvaccinated Hamilton Countians haven't been wearing masks anyway."

We didn't like wearing masks either, and still don't. We long to see smiles again, too. But the bottom line is that we felt slightly safer if we and others had on masks — especially since we have no way to know who is and is not vaccinated, and our state governments have made it clear they will not let employers or schools require vaccines or masks. Both Tennessee's Gov. Bill Lee and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp pushed for the legislation opposing "vaccine passports."

Plenty of pundits — including one on this page just Thursday — railed that "the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered such a messed-up message about unmasking that its director still has not been able to clean it up. As a result, many of us are more confused than ever about masks."

People are confused, sure. But not because CDC Director Rochelle Walensky's message wasn't clear. She was perfectly clear: "Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing."

The trouble is that the pronouncement seemed perfectly premature, too. Only 30% of Tennesseans and 29.5% of Georgians are fully vaccinated. The nationwide number isn't much better: 37.8%, according to Becker's Hospital Review.

If we're very, very lucky, India's killer mutant virus will not become another new "normal" for us. In the meantime, let's all do our part to make sure vaccines, at least, come back into vogue. Let's make vaccines the new normal.

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