It’s different for different people. Personally, though, I mark the beginning of COVID-19 at 8:51 p.m. Central Time, March 11, 2020. 

That’s when I got this text from my younger sister:

“The NBA canceled the rest of the season.”

“The rest of the season???,” I responded, incredulously.

I froze for a moment, feeling the weight of the coming pandemic slam into me. Then I grabbed my keys, drove to the local Family Dollar, and filled my cart with toilet paper. 

It’s surreal to remember now.

March 11, 2020 feels like it was a decade ago. It also feels like perhaps it was only last weekend. But it’s just a simple year. Twelve clean calendar pages. 

That same week, I sent my sister a Chicago Sun-Times news story about Illinois limiting large gatherings. The headline said the state had 32 total coronavirus cases. Now, we write the numbers with decimals. Illinois has had 1.2 million cases. Nationwide, we’ve had 29.8 million cases. Globally, 118.5 million.

There have also been 540,640 deaths in the United States. By some estimates, as many as 1 in 3 Americans knows someone who died from COVID-19.

I do.

My friend Bronson passed away Dec. 1, 2020. We met back when I was getting my start in journalism, both of us covering state politics in South Dakota together in the early 2000s. He was just 44 years old. 

One of our writers, Carla Scully, lost her husband. Stephen Scully, v.p. of operations for Anthony-Thomas Candy Co., passed away on Dec. 17, 2020 after complications from COVID-19. He was just 53. And he left behind four children.

Just two names out of more than half a million.

Here at Candy Industry, we have written extensively on how the pandemic has impacted the confectionery sector, including a detailed rundown of how things played out in the industry. 

It turns out, candy is pretty pandemic proof. Early on, sales were up as people turned to chocolate and sweet treats for comfort. Then, as the months went by, sales for most confectionery categories remained strong, enduring pandemic holidays, virtual classroom parties and the shift to eCommerce.

The industry is allowed to be happy about that. It’s allowed to be relieved that the worst year was not, somehow, even worse. Those sales came at a price, though. Many of us are still steeped in death and despair. 

On March 17, 2020, six days after the NBA canceled the rest of its season, I wrote a column for Candy Industry about how fast the pandemic was impacting society. At the time, I had just gotten back from the NCA’s State of the Industry event in Florida — the same event many of us attended virtually this week.

In the column, headlined “How quickly the coronavirus has changed our sweet world,” I speculated about how long we would be enduring the pandemic, writing: 

“This week, President Donald Trump told the country that he doesn’t expect us to get past all of this until July or August. July? Or August? We’re going to be enduring this until late summer? How can that be?

Is there anything other than a deep sigh that feels like an appropriate response to reading that now?

I also discussed the 2020 Sweets and Snacks Expo. 

“As I’m writing this, the NCA’s Sweets and Snacks Expo, slated for May 18-21, is still a go, but organizers have said it will greatly depend on how the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago proceed. As the pinnacle confectionery event in North America, what happens with the Sweets and Snacks Expo will no doubt serve as a signal of how the candy industry will recover from all this.”

As we all know, the 2020 Sweets and Snacks Expo was eventually canceled. Since then, the 2021 Expo was relocated across state lines to Indiana in a move that helped ensure it could be held in-person. It’s slated to be held June 23-25 at the Indiana Convention Center.

There is a palpable hope permeating the confectionery industry that it will be the first in-person event for us since the pandemic started in the United States. Indeed, vaccines are being distributed; daily cases are going down; and warmer weather has helped amplify feelings of optimism. 

The situation has resulted in part of my column unexpectedly remaining relevant. 

“Is it possible that the two major NCA events will bookend this crisis? With the State of the Industry right at the beginning, and the Sweets and Snacks Expo right at the end?”

A year later, the same questions linger. Or, well, similar questions.

I doubt anyone is still naive enough to think COVID-19 will ever completely end. But perhaps the 2021 Sweets and Snacks Expo will mark the end of the worst of it? 

As we walk onto the show floor, see old friends and try new candy, we will know we made it. But the masks, the plexiglass and the temperature checks will all be there to keep us humble. To remind us that we can never go back to March 10, 2020. 

All we can do is move forward with more compassion, more grace and a deeper understanding of what really matters in life.