Despite scientific experts warning against loosening public health restrictions as COVID-19 variants are spreading through the country, indoor dining is set to return to NYC this Friday.

This reality may be giving you hope, perhaps by raising the prospects for your business or by signaling potential freedom from spending most days at home during this dreary winter. For others, the situation is sparking anxieties of seeing more customers in close quarters or creating the fear of missing out on desperately desired socializing. One poll found four in five Americans were anxious about indoor dining last summer.

This mixture of fear and excitement shouldn’t surprise anyone. Humans are social creatures, but we are also really good at learning new habits. Due to the lockdowns, we spent 2020 fighting against millions of years of evolutionary programming that calls on us to be together. Now, as cases drop and the vaccines begin paying off, we’re facing an abrupt return to quasi-familiar routines, and it’s creating trust issues.

So Gothamist asked some local psychologists about the best approaches for mitigating these paradoxical feelings. If all goes well this year, society will be safe to reopen—but the process will be gradual and depend on our comfort levels.

“Our norms of what it means to socialize with others have really been thrown up in the air,” said Catherine Good, a psychology professor at Baruch College and The Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Some restaurant employees question the safety around the reopening—creating ethical concerns and angst around the idea of making some people return to potentially unsafe working conditions. Workers have told Gothamist they’d rather people order takeout and tip 20% minimum.

“You might even be feeling some anger that you're being required to go back into these social interactions at a time that you might not be ready for,” Good said.

One technique to ease social phobia centers around a gradual exposure to change, Barry Cohen, an applied psychology professor at New York University, said via email.

Cohen added the limited capacity of indoor activities can have the impact of gradually exposing us to aspects of life from before the pandemic. Going from 25% seating to 50% and then 75% is akin to microdosing your return to normal. And it’s unlikely that an immediate return to packed crowds would happen because people will be hesitant at first. Many have also been dining outside in structures that have similarities to indoor seating (which is not technically permitted under state rules but is commonplace nonetheless).

Good said Cohen’s concept of “mental pain” has become an “underlying current” in our lives. Anger, sadness, fear, anxiety are emotions that could be coming up. Perhaps it is the pandemic wall.

“As the world begins to slowly open up, we may be feeling these emotions, as well,” Good said.

Mindfulness and meditation practices, which can help keep your attention focused on the present moment, may help reduce the stress, she said. Research shows mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques help quell fear and anxiety. Various apps could get you started.

Another NYU psychology professor, Emily Balcetis, offers three steps to feeling comfortable with returning to indoor dining, safely.

The first step is weighing if the risk is worth the reward—good food and a conversation with a friend or putting yourself and others at risk of COVID-19. Two, if you do decide to dine out: wear a mask, wash your hands, and even take a COVID-19 test before dining. The person you’re dining with should get tested, too. Three, map out what issues could come up such as if you drop your mask on the ground. Bring an extra mask and wear comfortable clothes to prep for waiting outdoors.

If that sounds like a lot of work to plan an outing, it is.

Good says the pandemic means organizing plans to satisfy each person’s comfort level, a taxing endeavor given all of the safety considerations.

“These socializations used to give us energy, recharge us, but now even contemplating whether or not to initiate a plan with somebody feels effortful and can sap your energy,” Good said. She said going back to normal, or whatever new normal awaits us, will depend on the course of the pandemic.

“It’s going to be a slow burn.”