What 'Normal' Might Look Like After Coronavirus

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
Pedestrians in flu masks walking in city
Malte Mueller/Getty

I think it goes without saying that things are a bit “out of the ordinary” right now. Actually the words batshit crazy come to mind. Our day-to-day life looks nothing like it did a month or two ago and it’s hard to imagine what it will look like a couple months from now. One thing is certain, we are not in charge; coronavirus is. As our new hero Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, “’You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.”

But one other thing is certain as well: this too shall pass.

The lockdown will end. We won’t be sheltering in place forever. Things will, eventually, get back to normal. What that normal looks like, however, still remains to be seen.

First, before we go any further, it needs to be said again (and again and again and again): we can’t let our desire for some semblance of normalcy cloud our judgment. The World Health Organization has warned that a premature lifting of social distancing measures could spark a “deadly resurgence.” In fact, the New York Times reported that federal projections from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services indicate that lifting the 30-day stay-at-home orders could result in a death toll nearly as high as if no mitigation efforts were made at all (300,000 estimated without mitigation versus 200,000 if restrictions are lifted after 30 days).

So while we all want life get “back to normal,” we can’t rush it. We’re in this for the long haul, and we likely won’t ever return to life as we knew it – at least not for quite some time. In fact, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently said that, unless a vaccine or therapeutics are developed quickly, intermittent social distancing may be required until 2022.

Instead, we will need to settle into a “new normal.” After all, humans are resilient and we have a way (for better or worse) of adjusting to whatever our circumstances are.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve become borderline obsessed with trying to wrap my head around what, when and how we might emerge from #stayhome quarantine life. The current situation is so unlike anything we’ve known (or could have imagined) that it’s hard to imagine what this “new normal” post-pandemic life will look like.

I’ll admit, part of the reason I’ve had such a hard time mentally adjusting to the current lockdown situation is that I naively thought this wasn’t something that could happen. I figured a “pandemic” was a word relegated to history books. I took our healthcare system and modern medicine for granted, thinking we had equipped it to handle a crisis. I was privileged and naïve, and I realize that now.

For better or worse, that naivety has been shaken me to its core. We can no longer assume that vaccines are available to protect us from all infectious diseases. We can’t rely on our leaders to have our wellbeing in mind (okay, this one has been clear since Trump took office). And we can’t take anything for granted. That much is certain.

Aside from that, however, the post-quarantine landscape looks a little blurry. Again, the virus is in charge. What is clear, however, is that until there is a widely available vaccine and effective treatments for COVID-19, the threat will always linger.

Does that mean we’ll be stuck in our houses for the next 18-ish months (or longer) until there’s a vaccine?

Probably not.

Will life look radically different?

You bet.

And just what will this new normal look like?

Although this collective quarantine happened so swiftly and strongly that we’re still feeling some whiplash, emerging from it will likely happen in a much slower way. “Since the virus appears to be everywhere, we have to shut everything down. That’s unlikely to be the way we’ll exit, though,” Aaron E. Carroll wrote in The New York Times.

In order for things to even start looking close to something resembling a “new normal,” a few things need to happen. First, hospitals need to have the resources they need to treat coronavirus cases, including any potential surges. We need widespread testing for everyone who has symptoms, which a recent report puts at a minimum of 750,000. States need to be able to monitor confirmed cases and everyone they’ve been in contact with, and finally, there and a needs to be a sustained reduction in number of new cases for at least 14 days.

“[W]e are nowhere even near accomplishing any of these criteria,” Gregg Gonsalves, a professor of epidemiology and law at Yale University told The New York Times. “Opening up before then will be met with a resurgence of the virus.”

Even after these benchmarks have been met, it’s doubtful that our “new normal” will look anything like life pre-coronavirus. The mere idea that one day we would just go from being shut down – no schools, businesses shuttered, transportation reduced to a minimum – to “open” seems preposterous. There isn’t going to be some flip of the switch and things are back to pre-corona life.

Currently, the Trump Administration has recommended that everyone be diligent about social distancing until April 30, though many people doubt that we’ll be close to our “new normal” by then. In fact, Virginia has a shelter-in-place order is effective until June 10, and many states have canceled or moved to remote learning for the remainder of the school year. Best case scenario, as of now, appears to kids back in classrooms in the fall.

“I fully expect — though I’m humble enough that I can’t accurately predict — that by the time we get to the fall that we will have this under control enough, that it certainly will not be the way it is now — where people are shutting schools,” Fauci said at the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House.

With many (most?) students out of school until the fall (at the soonest), the “new normal” is going to look like a lot of parents working from home. Where things will get confusing, however, is when it comes to things like playdates, youth sports, and outings to places like the park, zoo or swimming pool. Right now, those questions are easily answered with the stay-at-home orders and school closings. The answer to all of those questions is a firm NO.

Once the stay-at-home orders are lifted, however, we may start to see things reopen. When Savannah Guthrie asked Dr. Fauci on TODAY if our lives would look more “normal” by summer, he responded by saying, “I hope that’s the case,” but reminded everyone that the virus “determines the timetable.”

Most experts have indicated these issues will be different for different locations, different people, and different situations. “That’s how we’ll reopen the country: place by place, bit by bit, based on the data,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on April 10.

A notice is seen at a supermarket to encourage social distancing on March 31, 2020. MONIRUL BHUIYAN/Getty

If antibody tests – blood tests that show whether someone is immune to coronavirus – become widely available, those who are immune may be able to resume typical activities sooner than other more vulnerable folks. NYU professor Paul Romer, recipient of a Nobel Prize in Economics, and Alan M. Garber, a physician and economist and the provost of Harvard University, suggests screening the general public on a weekly basis, and health care and emergency response workers daily. “We do not have the capacity to do this now,” they wrote in the New York Times, “but all it would take to make this happen is for the federal government to make coronavirus testing an urgent goal and to fund it accordingly.”

There likely won’t be clear-cut answers for many months, and parents will have to exercise a lot of caution. There will be a lot of grey areas and uncertainty. Please, folks, let’s do our best to make safe, educated decisions and to withhold rash judgments in the “new normal” recovery.

We can glean some hints about the “new normal” from countries that are ahead of the US in the coronavirus timeline. For instance, in Germany – which is ahead of the curve and due to early and aggressive social distancing saw a much lower mortality rate – soccer games will resume again in May, though they will look very different, with teams playing before empty stadiums for TV-viewing only. In the U.S., Major League Baseball is considering what it calls the “Arizona Plan” and quarantining all teams and playing games before empty stadiums. Dr. Fauci has said this type of scenario could work; other health officials warn that moving too quickly could be dangerous.

Once we do reconvene, get-togethers will be smaller. Restaurants may have smaller capacity limits so that tables can be spread apart. Handshakes may be a thing of the past. Hand-washing will happen all the freaking time, face masks will be a required accessory, and public temperature-taking might become a thing. In fact, Bob Iger, the executive chairman of Walt Disney Co., told Barron’s that the company is considering asking guests to have their temperature taken before being admitted, much like bags are checked before entry.

Two women observe social distancing measures as they speak to each other from adjacent park benches amidst the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, in the centre of York, northern England on March 19, 2020. OLI SCARFF/Getty

Large gatherings for things like concerts and festivals seem unlikely to happen any time in the near future, and even things like church services will probably take place virtually until there are effective and widely available treatments or a vaccine.

At Shanghai Disneyland, which reopened some hotels and shopping areas on April 9 after closing in January, developed detailed guidelines for guests on its website, noting that during the phased reopening, properties will have “limited capacity and reduced hours of operation.”

With smaller public gatherings and limited capacities, contrary to what our “stable genius” of a president has predicted, there won’t be a surge to the economy. Many of the tens of millions of people who are unemployed won’t suddenly get their jobs back. When it comes to economic woes, we’re in it for the long haul, so buckle up and give whatever you can.

What seems certain is that life as we know it has been significantly altered for a long time, perhaps permanently. Our new normal might look like more work-from-home arrangements and smiles to random strangers on the street. It might look like less travel and reduced consumption (a huge win for the environment). And god willing, there will be a renewed dedication to public health care.

At a minimum, however, one thing is a clear: normal as we knew it is gone. We need to adjust to our “new normal.” After all, normal is all relative.

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