CLEVELAND — The annual tree lighting at Crocker Park looked more like Times Square on New Year's Eve, with people packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
The massive crowd was estimated to be more than 13,000 people, which Westlake Police said matches pre-pandemic levels.
"People are just hungry to feel a connection with their friends and family," said Eileen Anderson.
Anderson, a Case Western Reserve University psychologist said she was not surprised by the number of people who turned out a year after COVID abruptly changed how we celebrate.
"It was a huge psychological cost for people to lose their annual nutcracker trip, tree lighting, Christmas concert or menorah lighting," said Anderson.
Also sidelined in 2020 was the unofficial kick-off to the holidays in Cleveland, The Christmas Connection.
"It was amazing to see everyone back together," said Gina Gumina with Marketplace Events.
The show may have missed a year, but it picked up right where it left off.
"There was an energy in the building that I've never seen before," said Gumina.
The seasonal staple's attendance also returned to near pre-pandemic numbers — News 5 learned turnout was down just slightly from 2019.
“This is just going to continue. People are so excited to be out of their houses and see people and talk to live people again," said Gumina.
Anderson agreed and said many people are all-in this holiday season to make up for lost time.
"We've seen that in other ways in the pandemic, like the hunger for live music, for example. More people going to concerts and people going to more than they usually would," said Anderson.
With these festive gatherings back, people are handling the return of crowds differently with the deadly pandemic still looming.
"A lot of people are just saying, 'I'm sick of it. The cost has been too high. I'm going to pretend like it's over,'" said Anderson.
Others may feel the need to retreat.
"They're looking around and seeing people, not masked, and that makes them feel more anxiety and question, should I lock myself down again?" said Anderson.
Turning out for traditions in a big way may help some cope with the trauma from the pandemic, but Anderson warned it could be a temporary fix.
"What we have to watch out for is that later, the after-effects of having these difficult experiences don't come back and blindside you," said Anderson.
For those that want to get out and experience the holidays, but also want to minimize their risk of speading COVID-19, Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said tests, whether they're done at the pharmacy, hospital or at home, should be done a day before the event while ensuring results will get back in time.
"If you have symptoms and you do an at-home antigen test, you need to probably still follow up with the PCR test," Skoda said. "That test is very accurate. If you are positive, you are positive. But if you have symptoms and you end up being testing negative [with an at-home antigen test], you probably want to have a PCR test done to make sure you do not have COVID."
Skoda noted that while pharmacies usually administer the more accurate PCR test, those results typically take one to two days to come back.
As for other precautions that should be taken while visiting with friends and family this holiday season, Skoda's advice is familiar, but as important as ever, given that those who are vaccinated and get a breakthrough infection will have a lower viral load, and perhaps an asymptomatic case.
"What we want to do is try to make sure that everybody keeps in mind that 12% of all of our cases were asymptomatic, so you can still have COVID and be asymptomatic," Skoda said. "That's why those public health measures — wearing a mask, staying away from folks, keeping your distance, washing your hands, covering your cough, if you don't feel well stay home — are so critical during the holidays. It isn't just the test, and 'either you have it or you don't.' It's all of those things that go with it."