Panaro: There is no back to normal

Kevin Panaro, Staff Columnist

For months on end, the coronavirus pandemic has been a string of nonstop bad news. With the continual rise in the number of reported cases and confirmed deaths, and with daily reports about how wildly unprepared the U.S. is to deal with a healthcare crisis of this magnitude, spirits are definitely low. What’s worse, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Robert Redfield has warned of a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the winter that could be more devastating than the first.

All throughout the country, people sit cramped in their houses, procrastinating school work or office deliverables, complaining of boredom as their eyes are glued to the television, their phone, or both. And those are the lucky ones. Those recently fired or laid off now have to contend with the stress of no healthcare coverage, the mounting cost of utility/mortgage payments and an uncertain future, all the while the government does a victory lap over a measly $1,200 stimulus check. Medical workers on the frontlines are in a similar position. The virus has made their already long shifts even longer, all the while friends and coworkers contract the virus themselves due to a lack of protective equipment.

It seems the entire country is waiting on its collective hand and knee for a return to what things used to be. For a time when people walked outside without masks strung from ear to ear. When cafes, restaurants, clothing stores, movie theaters, sports arenas, churches, playgrounds, parks and college campuses could be open without violating major health and safety guidelines. When businesses did not have to distinguish themselves between essential and nonessential. When delivery drivers and supermarket clerks weren’t putting their lives at risk by going to work. Most people, especially those hit hardest by the coronavirus, are simply waiting for things to go back to normal.

Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more every day like that’s not possible. Even though governors everywhere are already putting together task forces and drafting plans on how best to reopen their respective states, the return to normalcy will likely be very slow. In the coming months, as more and more businesses are given the go ahead, the change will not be overnight. There is of course always an overzealous group who will jump at the chance to resume their old lives, which has been recently represented by the Liberate movement in states like Ohio and Michigan, and by celebrities like Dr. Phil. Yet, a sizable portion of Americans will likely hold out after formal restrictions end, opting to stay inside rather than jump start the economy. Even after weeks of only essential trips, while many Americans would certainly prefer to do something fun, a significant portion won’t let go of their fears for a while.

What this means is that the economy is going to lag, and that the climb back to “normal” is going to be slow and probably unnoticeable, not quick and sudden. There will also be a massive shift in the business landscape. While interest in going to baseball games or seeing the latest blockbuster will never go away, Americans are going to keep that heightened awareness of other people around them, and a propensity to stay six feet away from strangers instilled in them by medical experts.

There is a chance that jobs in the service industry dissipated by the coronavirus won’t come back because of this increased fear of personal contact. Certainly the cruise lines, who have close personal contact as the basis of their business model, will take a massive hit in revenue, and may never recover. Industries like oil, in which demand has slowed to zero because few cars are on the road, are now paying to have barrels unloaded. This has caused oil prices to go negative for the first time in history. Companies have to drastically slow down production, and many will simply go out business. Overall, any job that allows for work to be done at home likely will shift completely to that model.

Culture will also change, in favor of services and entertainment offered online. For almost two months, regular people have been busying themselves at home all day, to the point of habit. Habits that will stick around. Sites like YouTube and Twitch, where users can make their own content, are seeing a huge increase in viewership. People have built these services into their daily lives, where they will stay for the foreseeable future. Not to mention the worldwide phenomenon that is Zoom video conferencing. Corporate offices and college clubs alike have seen how much easier and more convenient it is to coordinate meetings when they’re held virtually. When you can meet in a professional setting from the comfort of your bedroom or home office, there is practically no reason not to.

The end result is that there will be no return to the times preceding coronavirus; there will be a distinct before and after period. The crisis has dramatically and seemingly overnight changed the landscape of our society, and there won’t be a full recovery. Professionally and culturally, the U.S. will be a much different place once the final wave has come and gone, and governmental/medical restrictions are lifted. Regardless of fears about going outside and participating in activities that boost the economy, many people will have a lot less disposable income. Some will be in debt and facing dire straits. As comforting as it may be to think about all the things you can do once normalcy returns, we need to prepare for the possibility that it may never truly return.