Over the past week, I’ve been informally contacting friends and colleagues in a variety of fields—sports, travel, architecture, entertainment, arts, the clergy, and more—to ask them how their world might look after social distancing. The answer: It looks weird.
We will get used to seeing temperature-screening stations at public venues. If America’s testing capacity improves and results come back quickly, don’t be surprised to see nose swabs at airports. Airlines may contemplate whether flights can be reserved for different groups of passengers—either high- or low-risk. Mass-transit systems will set new rules; don’t be surprised if they mandate masks, too.
Changes like these are only the beginning. After most disasters, recovery occurs days or weeks or a few months later—when the hurricane has ended, the flooding has subsided, or the earth has stopped shaking. Once the immediate threat has abated, a community gets its bearings, buries its dead, and begins to clear the debris. In crisis-management lingo, the response phase gives way to the recovery stage, in which a society goes back to normal. But the coronavirus will follow a different trajectory.
Until scientists discover a vaccine, doctors develop significantly better medical treatments, or both, people all around the world will be working around, sharing space with, and sheltering from a virus that still kills. Instead of a recovery, the year or years that follow the lifting of stay-at-home orders won’t be true recovery but something better understood as adaptive recovery, in which we learn to live with the virus even as we root for medical progress.
During this strange purgatory, places such as schools will be governed by direct orders from public officials, and large corporate employers will have tremendous influence on work-related norms. But Americans spend a good amount of our lives and money in other spaces. After basic needs are addressed or met, what will it be like to be you?
Face shields—not masks, but clear plastic full face shields—will be required for fans at sports games or concerts, to the extent that they happen at all. Golf could become the sport of choice as it’s easy to maintain distance and is outdoors. Not coincidentally, the PGA Tour announced plans this week to restart its season in June.
In some of the rosier scenarios, COVID-19 testing and tracking becomes widespread enough that most businesses can stay open. Even then, the very idea of having a routine—picking up or dropping off dry cleaning on your own schedule—will be lost as individual businesses open or close based on the health of employees. Communal experiences—from the arts, to performances, to programs such as book events—will no longer exist without much more stringent health protocols. Pre-ticketed admissions may become the norm at museums or movie theatres; as for the latter, The New York Post recently reported that the movie chain AMC, which had to close all its movie houses, is talking to bankruptcy lawyers. The company disputes such reports, but its financial situation, like that of other cinema companies, is daunting.