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As workplaces reopen, connections with long-lost friends and colleagues are re-established at the gym and coffee shop

Jennifer Fung works out at Orangetheory Fitness in Edmonton. Masks are no longer required in most settings in Alberta, which has eased a return to group fitness.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

If we are all the main characters in our stories, they were key members of the supporting cast: the friendly neighbour we chatted with on the bus downtown every day, the barista who started making our tall half-sweet oat milk latte each morning when she spotted us in line, the colleague we’d talk to about reality TV at lunch, our sweaty fellow gym-goers at our regular fitness class. When the Omicron wave descended at the start of last winter, bringing in new restrictions and ushering in yet another wave of remote work, we lost many of those small but meaningful connections.

In the last month, those restrictions have eased and vaccine and mask mandates have lifted. And though the country is now navigating the sixth wave of the pandemic, people have been taking hesitant first steps back to downtown offices and businesses, triggering countless mini-reunions – some unexpectedly emotional. Globe and Mail reporters in Halifax, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto spoke to people in their respective cities about the relationships they’ve recently re-established.

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Mary Nkrumah, centre, who runs Mary's African Cuisine, hands a takeout order to a customer at the restaurant in Halifax on Sunday, March 20, 2022. Darren Calabrese/The Globe and MailDARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

An impatient food delivery worker comes into Mary’s African Cuisine, greets owner Mary Nkrumah by simply saying, “DoorDash” – the name of his employer – and sits at a small table, scrolling through his phone.

Ms. Nkrumah smiles, tells him she’ll be five minutes, and finishes preparing his order. When it’s packed, he takes it and wordlessly exits.

For more than two months, this was the bulk of human interaction Ms. Nkrumah had at her namesake restaurant as the Omicron variant thinned foot traffic to her downtown Halifax restaurant. She was so lonely, her two youngest children would sometimes sit at a table just so she’d have someone to talk to during her 12-hour days of prepping, cooking and filling takeout and delivery orders.

But on this day in March, a couple got up and to pay for their breakfast, gushing to Ms. Nkrumah about how tasty everything was. The woman asked for goat soup to go, prompting a joyful, “Of course!” from Ms. Nkrumah. It was a welcome return to the way things were.

“What I really missed was in-person talking,” she said. Sharing stories with people about life in Ghana, where she grew up. Discussing parenting with other mothers. Explaining what side dish to pair with the oxtail stew and how, exactly, to pick up fufu with your fingers.

In mid-February, Nova Scotia began phase one of its reopening plan and allowed restaurants to open at 75 per cent capacity, which has helped Ms. Nkrumah to reunite with many of her favourite regulars.

The previous day, one downtown commuter showed up, placing his usual order for juicy chicken with pumpkin seed and spinach along with injera.

“Oh my God! It’s been a while!” Ms. Nkrumah said when she saw him. The two caught up on life while she prepared his food, breaking often to say, “I missed you!”

Mary Nkrumah, left, who runs Mary's African Cuisine, hugs Zahara Mokoena, 8, after having not seen each other in months.DARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

On a recent Sunday, Ms. Nkrumah’s eyes widened as she saw one of her favourite customers, eight-year-old Zahara Mokoena, come through the door with her father, Khothatso.

“Oh, finally! Do you want to come around?” Ms. Nkrumah asked, gesturing for Zahara to step behind the counter. “I’ve been missing my sweetie! Can I have a hug?”

Zahara, who has been a regular at the restaurant since she was a toddler, bounded over and the two embraced, joy stretching across their faces.

The Mokoena family had ordered from the restaurant weekly through the Omicron wave but often through delivery apps, or through quick pickups – the connection with “Auntie Mary,” as they called her, had been temporarily lost.

“Mary’s is the closest thing I can get to my mother’s cooking,” explained Mr. Mokoena, who is from South Africa. “Mary loves my kids, I have three daughters … but she has a soft spot for the little cutie Zahara. So every time we go it’s like, ‘Come back and give me a hug.’ … She’d been missing the hugs because of the pandemic.”

– Dakshana Bascaramurty

Adam Findlay’s return to the office caused confusion at home. He returned to office life in downtown Calgary about a month and a half ago, and his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter needed time to adjust. She has only known her dad to work out of the home office.

“She still would look in the office in the morning to see me, and I’m not there,” Mr. Findlay, who works in energy marketing, says. “It is awful.”

And his office-office is a little different, too.

“Since nobody bought new clothes for the last two years, it is a lot more casual,” he says, wearing dark blue jeans and a button-up plaid shirt. “Anything is an upgrade from the sweatpants at home.”

Premier Jason Kenney lifted Alberta’s work-from-home order March 1, but many in downtown Calgary were already back.

In the city’s +15 network, a maze of glassy skywalks connecting buildings in the downtown core, office workers run errands and grab lunch, most without masks.

Premier Jason Kenney lifted Alberta’s work-from-home order March 1, officially bringing office workers back to the city centre.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Commuting consumes about an hour of Mr. Findlay’s day, cutting into sleep and family time. But he is glad to be back at his desk in Bankers Hall. He feels more engaged and a touch more productive. He is also getting to know colleagues in a way the pandemic did not allow, he says, as he stands in line at Hula, a poke bowl joint, with one of his co-workers. “I’ve worked with him for a year but barely met him in real life,” Mr. Findlay says. “It is strange not to see a person you work with for a year and then work right beside him. It is has been good.”

Mr. Findlay orders Ponzu with tuna. Hula, in Brookfield Place, is the only business in the food court with a lineup. Empty tables are available in this slice of the +15s, but it’s far from deserted.

“It kind of feels like back to normal life,” Mr. Findlay says.

– Carrie Tait

Ken Foster is an artist and local icon in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

On a good day in the Before Times, Ken Foster could sell around 10 paintings to people as they dined on sun-drenched patios or waited in nightclub lineups. The hardscrabble street artist just had to wander Vancouver’s bustling Gastown neighbourhood, holding up his most recent piece, and a prospective buyer would wave him over.

Mr. Foster, slight and permanently covered in paint, is as a local celebrity. He has been the subject of coffee table books and documentaries, and his commissioned artwork can fetch thousands of dollars.

But for day-to-day income, the artist counted on selling art to locals who were out and about, and happy to snap up his signature paintings of moody alleyways and elaborate cityscapes for $20 to $100. Others would request personal, custom pieces, which he would turn around in about an hour. That came to a halt when COVID-19 restrictions hit bars and restaurants, significantly reducing foot traffic in the area. “I like doing stuff like birthday and anniversary pieces for people,” Mr. Foster said. “But there was no one to buy art. The whole time that COVID has been going on, I haven’t had any decent jobs.”

Instead, Mr. Foster relied on long-time clients. The owner of a nearby custom framing shop continued to purchase his pieces for resale, displaying them in the shop’s window.

Foster used to sell his paintings by wandering around the neighbourhood, holding up his most recent piece. That came to a halt when COVID-19 restrictions significantly reduced foot traffic in the area.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Barber Scotty Muller purchased several pieces from Mr. Foster years ago when he worked in Gastown, and commissioned the artist to paint a large wall mural on his shop in East Vancouver. Mr. Muller didn’t venture much into Gastown during the pandemic and lost contact with Mr. Foster, but ran into him again in January.

“I was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to come by the shop,’ and since then he’s been by four or five times to say what’s up and bring by his pieces,” Mr. Muller said. He now has six of Mr. Foster’s artworks on display.

“It’s funny, he looked the exact same as he did the last time that I had seen him: Covered in paint, hair wild, rocking a bandana. He was just Ken, you know? Just keeps on keeping on.”

– Andrea Woo

While gyms in Alberta had been open in some capacity for much of the time since the pandemic begun, it finally felt like things were getting back to normal at an Orangetheory Fitness in Edmonton.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

“Alright, let’s get this music cranked,” Joanne McQuilter said.

It was a sunny Edmonton afternoon, and outside the snow was melting in the warm spring sun. It had been two years, almost to the day, since COVID-19 shut everything down, and while gyms in Alberta had been open in some capacity for much of the time since, at the Orangetheory Fitness in Callingwood, it finally felt like things were really, truly getting back to some kind of normal.

Ms. McQuilter adjusted her wireless microphone headset and glanced at a stopwatch as a half dozen women took their spots on a line of treadmills, and another group of people settled at rowing machines for the warm-up.

“It’s really nice to be here in person,” said Kim Barriere, who was attending her fourth or fifth Orangetheory class of the week. She’d been going to exercise classes regularly before the pandemic, but didn’t end up doing any online classes when things were shut down, and barely used her the treadmill at home.

“I just find I compete more with others. I see other people working harder, and it makes me want to work harder,” she said. “Doing it at home, I don’t try as hard.”

There were motivational messages on the wall. Leave better than you came. Own today. Good things come to those who sweat. Screens displayed the exercisers’ heart rates and caloric burns.

Orangetheory had gone through many different phases in the past two years, from online classes to smaller in-person sessions, and at one point, only low-intensity workouts in studio. Even with the provincial government’s restrictions removed, district studio manager Lacey Bielak said the company decided to make changes in phases, and there were still some classes with a vaccine requirement and masked teacher, for clients that wanted it.

Veronica Riruyo works out at Orangetheory Fitness in Edmonton.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Ms. McQuilter, who has been coaching at the gym since July, did her first class without a mask a week earlier.

“It was amazing,” she said. “It was just so nice to see everyone’s faces and smiles.”

A woman in a grey tank top grimaced while doing a burpee. A dance remix of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ filled the room.

“Get really uncomfortable,” Ms. McQuilter told the class, as she walked back toward the line of the runners. Their feet pounded rhythmically on the treadmills. “You’ve got this.”

– Jana Pruden

Jackie Kim thought she could not have picked a better spot for her dry-cleaning shop. Two years ago, this storefront in Toronto’s west end was bustling: a short walk from the Dundas West transit station and across the street from a grocery store and a GO train station.

“It used to be such a busy street,” said Ms. Kim. “Every time I looked out the window, I would see people hurrying to the subway station. Sometimes my regular customers would drop their clothes off while picking up grocery or on their way back from work.”

Since the pandemic, however, Dundas Street West has not been the same. Ms. Kim said she had over 100 regular customers, almost all of whom stopped coming to her shop when COVID-19 brought their lives to a halt. “Nobody is going to the office any more, so they don’t need to get any office clothes dry-cleaned,” she said.

Not only did Ms. Kim miss her regular customers, but she also said it was hard to get through the day. “I looked out the window and didn’t even see anybody. It was very boring.”

However, a small stream of regulars has started to make its way back. “I was so happy to see them after more than two years. Some of them have changed their hair. Some have bought new clothes in the pandemic and changed their style.”

The hangers behind the counter where Ms. Kim stands are beginning to look fuller, but there are still more empty slots than hangers with clothes on them, a reflection that many office workers are still working from home. She has heard, though, from a few holdouts, that they will be back to work soon. “At least I’m going to have something to look forward to.”

– Uday Rana

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