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At emotional mass reunion, grandparents see grandkids for first time since pandemic started

About 28 families who had been separated for more than a year got to hug one another at MetLife Stadium on Thursday.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was a series of hugs that Peggy Broda had waited months for: first, an embrace with her daughter; then, a tight squeeze of her granddaughter; and finally, the chance to hold her infant grandson for the first time.

Separated by a couple of states and only able to see one another via video calls for more than a year, Broda and her husband, Bob, were two of about three dozen fully vaccinated senior citizens who reunited Thursday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, with more than 100 loved ones for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The Brodas’ granddaughter Gray, who was a day shy of turning 5, wore a rainbow-patterned mask as her father, James Zdaniewski, hoisted her up and lifted her into her grandmother’s arms. The Brodas then got their first in-person glimpse of their grandson, 9-month-old Shep.

“This is just an incredible, incredible day,” Peggy Broda said, bouncing Shep on her lap. “It’s so fun to finally meet him.”

The event, which required a Covid-19 test for entry, was sponsored by United Airlines, Marriott Bonvoy and the travel identification technology platform CLEAR.

Most of the seniors in attendance came from South Florida on a United-sponsored flight, while the Brodas took a train from their home in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Their daughter, Adrienne Zdaniewski, came in from Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and their two children.

“You would think it’d be all about excitement, and happiness, and it absolutely is,” Adrienne Zdaniewski said on the evening before the reunion with her parents. “But I think more than anything, I’ll speak for myself, it’s just relief.”

For others, the event was bittersweet. Michele Wasserman and Sue Weinberg, whose brother, Stephen Barry, died of Covid-19 in February at age 69, were among those who flew in from Florida. They were seeing Barry’s family for the first time since the pandemic started.

Aboard the flight to New Jersey, Barry’s sisters told NBC News that their brother was a New York Jets season ticket holder who went to games at the stadium where they were headed to reunite with his widow and children.

“We’re going to feel him there. I know we are,” Wasserman said.

The two-and-a-half-hour event, “CLEAR Connects: A Day of Families” was hosted by the actor Neil Patrick Harris and treated about two dozen families to lunch, live music, photo booths and games.

Stephen Barry.Courtesy family of Stephen Barry

It comes as families across the country are holding smaller-scale reunions of their own now that many are fully vaccinated: nearly 109 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or 32.8 percent of America. Fifty-seven percent of adults 18 and older have received at least one dose; President Joe Biden this week announced a push to get that number up to 70 percent by July 4.

The MetLife event sponsors surprised Peggy and Bob Broda’s granddaughter with a birthday cake to enjoy with her grandparents, a welcomed contrast to Gray’s 4th birthday, which she had celebrated over Zoom.

Peggy Broda meets her infant grandson in person for the first time and hugs her daughter, Adrienne Zdaniewski, and granddaughter, Gray Zdaniewski.Brendan McDermid / Reuters

As fun, as the festivities were, finally being with their family, was the most memorable part of the day for the Brodas — especially meeting their baby grandson.

“To actually pick him up, and grab him, there was tears in my eyes,” Bob Broda said. “It was just absolutely phenomenal.”

Ellison Barber and Carolina Gonzalez reported from East Rutherford, N.J.; Kerry Sanders on a flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Newark, N.J.; and Elizabeth Chuck from New York.