For two years, Brampton mother Karyn Keith took extra care not to get sick with COVID-19. She sanitized and washed her hands frequently, wiped down her groceries with Lysol wipes and kept her daughter in online school until February.

Despite her efforts, Keith and her husband, a car technician, both fell ill with the virus last month after Ontario lifted most of its COVID-19 public health measures. She can’t help but feel angry, like the sacrifices and isolation her family endured were all for naught.

“How did we go from ‘we’re in it together, we are a united community’ to ‘every man for himself and I hope you make it to the other side OK?’” Keith wondered.

The sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has been like no other. For two years, daily decision-making was informed by government mandates that guided people on things like when to wear a mask and how many can gather indoors safely at any given time. But since the lifting of most pandemic guidelines in March, these tools to curb COVID-19 spread have suddenly become a personal choice.

The Star spoke with some Ontarians about their outlook on the pandemic in the absence of government guidelines, and how they have been navigating daily life. Some are out again, eager to resume their routines after two years of isolation. Others, especially those who are immunocompromised, feel abandoned, forced to stay at home in fear of catching the virus. Still others are somewhere in the middle, with emotions ranging from anger to frustration to confusion, as they agonize over how to move forward in the face of yet another wave.

The latest waste-water analysis estimates around 100,000 Ontarians are getting sick with COVID-19 daily, though this number is plateauing. Meanwhile, the public is getting mixed guidance: Ontario’s Ministry of Health says it’s okay to gather and not wear a mask at the mall or a concert. Health experts, including Canada’s top physician Dr. Theresa Tam, are advising people to continue wearing a mask, regardless.

It’s easy to see the impact of this mixed messaging. Numerous people are still wearing their masks in public despite the lifting of mandates in the Greater Toronto Area. Many others are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at events like the Blue Jays’ home opener on April 8, sometimes maskless.

For Jacob Woods, a Toronto resident, the latest wave and lack of restrictions has led to feelings of confusion. A fan of rock music, Woods recently saw one of his all-time favourite musicians at a live show with his partner. He said it felt good to be able to do something he loves and that he felt safe as the vaccine mandate was still in place at the venue. But a sense of guilt overcame him on the walk home.

“We said to each other, ‘this was fantastic, but was this smart?’” Woods recalled. “I have mixed emotions about it, because there’s a lot of people out there still suffering.”

Woods said he and his partner have grown more cautious since the sixth wave. Like many Torontonians, they have also chosen to continue wearing masks in public.

“We both looked at it as ‘we’re going to do what’s right for us, our family and our community,’” Woods said.

Bobby Umar, a Toronto-based small business owner, said he’s noticed people’s attitudes toward the pandemic have become fragmented. “Some don’t want to talk about it, and some do,” he said. “Some are relenting a little bit on masking and distancing, and some are more particular about it.”

“A few of my colleagues have said, ‘we’re going to [get sick], so I’d rather get it now,’” he added. “But I still don’t want to get it. I don’t want to have to isolate myself. I don’t want to have long COVID,” he said, referring to lingering symptoms of the virus.

For Umar, daily life since the lifting of restrictions has been a balance of being out again and avoiding the virus. He celebrated his birthday in February by going out with a few close friends to dinner — friends who share a similar caution level when it comes to COVID-19. He’s also taken his kids to a movie, but added it felt safer as people around him were distanced and wearing a mask.

Ontario has kept the mask mandate in place for now in hospitals, nursing homes and on public transit. University campuses have also kept mask and vaccine mandates in place until the end of the semester.

Georgia Gardner, who is in her third year of studies at Queen’s University, said she and others have enjoyed being back on campus, seeing friends and socializing with one another after two years of mostly learning in isolation.

“I think a lot of people are trying to reclaim any semblance of that initial dream of what we thought university would be like,” Gardner said.

But the virus still feels ubiquitous, she added. She still makes a point to test herself whenever she visits home, and said she, too, has mixed feelings when reflecting on the current state of the pandemic.

“I am not immunocompromised, I am a young adult,” she said, adding it’s a privilege to be both at a time when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. “I am fearful for what this means for people who are not in the same position as me.”

Meanwhile, most communal spaces, like bars, restaurants, and even apartment buildings, lifted the mask requirement as of March 21. In a memo released April 8, Public Health Ontario acknowledged that since the mask mandate was lifted, COVID-19 cases have risen exponentially.

Vaccines are still effective in reducing severe illness and death compared to previous waves, especially among those who are vulnerable. But people are still being hospitalized with the virus, and COVID-19 ICU occupancy in Ontario is up 11.5 per cent from the previous week as of Wednesday.

For Megan Linton, who is immunocompromised, the latest rise in cases and lack of government and community action have been “heartbreaking.”

Linton, an Ottawa-based disability justice advocate, said many immunocompromised people like herself have been confined to their apartment since COVID-19 measures were lifted. Some, she said, have sought out psychiatric help due to the profound sense of isolation they are now feeling.

“It feels like complete abandonment,” Linton said. “It feels like no one cares.”

Linton’s concerns are many: she worries about members of her community dying from the virus, or experiencing debilitating symptoms of long COVID. She also worries about whether this wave will mean more cancelled surgeries and other care for people who desperately need it.

She anticipates the summer will bring some relief in the form of being able to see people again in the safety of the outdoors. But she is afraid things will get worse again in the absence of global access to vaccines, as well as local measures to curb the spread of the virus altogether.

These worries are echoed by many who spoke with the Star. Woods said it has been frustrating to watch the pandemic continue, but this time in absence of any protective measures. “A lot of people sacrificed, a lot of people lost jobs,” Woods said. “If this was going to be the outcome, why did we bother to do anything?”

Keith and her husband have since recovered from their infection, but she also worries about what’s to come. Her 10-year-old daughter has come home from school with two letters warning of COVID-19 exposure since she returned to the classroom in February. Keith, who is also immunocompromised, is still wary of her daughter getting sick, and of the virus reaching her mother-in-law, who is a cancer survivor.

“I’m really, really angry,” Keith said through tears, reflecting on how the virus still found a way into her home despite her best efforts. “We worked so hard, and my kid will never recover fully; her physical health, her mental health, the loss of two years of her young life … We have sacrificed so much.”

Keith’s anger is directed at the provincial government, which she said has provided inconsistent messaging on the virus, exacerbating people’s sense of COVID-19 fatigue in the face of ongoing spread.

“I don’t blame people for being fed up, but I am angry because we did everything they told us we needed to do, and here we are.”

Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_