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Here we are again, approaching our second pandemic winter.

This time, the country is in a better place than a year ago, when cases were rocketing toward their peak of roughly 250,000 cases per day.

Some 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated, which has resulted in lower case counts and made many people more comfortable interacting with others. But the pandemic's grip continues to be fueled by the unvaccinated. And breakthrough cases remain a possibility, especially when cold weather moves life indoors, where airborne coronavirus can linger.

With the holiday season fast approaching, there seems to be little appetite for another round of Zoom celebrations. Yet, aside from getting vaccinated, current government guidelines for safe gatherings are less clearly defined than they were last holiday season. (At the end of a brief, vague advisory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that those gathering with multiple households from different geographic areas might consider quarantining or testing beforehand.)

That's left families and friend groups having to decide, at times awkwardly, whether to gather inside without hesitation or forgo events entirely. Requests that guests be vaccinated, or that they show a negative test, have ended in hurt feelings and ruptured relationships.

In a culture accustomed to events playing out in three acts, the pandemic's fourth phase has put us in uncharted, uncomfortable territory.

In 2020, Rodney Booen's family skipped its holiday gathering for the first time. But after the Minneapolis man and his relatives attended his niece's outdoor wedding in September, he's assuming the usual holiday celebration will resume.

Since being vaccinated, Booen said he's largely been going about life as usual, except for postponing an out-of-state trip due to concern about high case rates in other regions.

"A few months ago, it was iffy with what was going to happen with this new variant out here," he said. "Now I'm feeling a little bit more confident."

While he doesn't know the vaccination status of every family member ("It's not a subject we've really talked about"), he doesn't see holiday get-togethers as a risk. "I still feel like I can go anyplace," he said.

Overwhelmed by decisions

Even as a greater sense of normalcy has returned to our lives, many say the need for constant decisions and extended negotiations are taxing, now that precautions are largely left up to individuals.

The prolonged, slow-motion whiplash of a waxing-and-waning pandemic is taking its toll on our collective mental health, a condition some social scientists are describing as "pandemic flux syndrome."

One older Minnesotan (who requested anonymity in speaking about her family's vaccine rift) said she and her siblings skipped their annual reunion in 2020 because of COVID. This fall, the gathering resumed, but she decided not to attend because even though she was vaccinated, some of her siblings were not.

"I just thought, 'No, I can't take that chance,'" she said.

Her absence fractured relationships with her siblings and compounded the isolation she had already experienced living alone during quarantine. "The pandemic really did a number on me," she said.

At this stage in the pandemic, some who feel safe still fear the impact the coronavirus might have on loved ones with preexisting health conditions, while others say the pandemic has now taken a backseat to more pressing concerns.

Being fully vaccinated, and having just received a booster, has minimized Catherine Bell's concerns about the coronavirus. She's far more worried about the daughter she's been visiting (but not staying with) who has a severe chronic illness and lost her husband to COVID-19 last December, before vaccines were widely available.

Yet even Bell (a former Minnesotan who's in Minnetonka for a six-month visit) admits that she's inconsistent about her safety precautions. While she often wears a mask in public, she doesn't always do so in places where it's optional, such as the public areas of her apartment building.

"I'm not worried about me getting it," she explained. "I wear it to protect my daughter, primarily."

Matthew Schinigoi, who lives in West Concord, a community of 700 near Rochester, said he felt that while older people in small towns remain somewhat worried about COVID-19, younger people like himself had other concerns.

He chose not to be vaccinated, but feels safe because he works outdoors and is rarely around a lot of other people.

"To be honest, I think I'm more concerned about gas prices than I am COVID," he said.

Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of COVID concern, there's unity in our frustration with the pandemic's endurance.

"I'm just ready for it to be over," Schinigoi said.

"We thought we'd all be free by now," Bell noted.