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The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected the lives of every American. And while politicians and experts disagree on how best to confront the disease and mitigate its economic ramifications, there is a broad understanding that we are entering a “new normal” — an upending of our lives that will continue at least until a vaccine is developed — and perhaps well beyond that.
How that new normal will play out may depend in large part on where you live. But broadly speaking, we know that the struggle against COVID-19 will continue to be fought on many fronts, from hospitals and schools to restaurants and houses of worship.
Epidemiologists expect that the coronavirus will hit the U.S. in a series of waves. Research indicates that rates of infection could dissipate in the summer months only to spike again in the fall. Where these spikes might occur is anyone’s guess, meaning mayors and governors must be prepared to suddenly reinforce social distancing measures as rates of infection wax and wane throughout the country.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has teamed up with other West Coast governors to implement a regional response to the disease, has likened future containment measures to a “dimmer switch.” Offices and schools could be opened only to be quickly shuttered again as outbreaks move from one municipality to another.
In the coming months, economic considerations will need to be weighed against concerns for public health. And because people cannot stay cooped up in their homes indefinitely, lawmakers will have to balance people’s desire to socialize with friends and family with the social distancing efforts that remain the primary method of lowering the infection rate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already put together guidelines for reopening places like restaurants, schools and houses of worship. According to the Associated Press, these guidelines consist of numerous recommendations, including one stipulating that desks in schools should be at least 6 feet apart, while worship services should stay virtual for as long as possible. Restaurants, per the CDC guidelines, should adhere to a host of new precautions, including a possible ban on salad bars.
Beyond that, what will all this look like? Here is what some top experts say to expect.
THE SCHOOLS: IS ONLINE LEARNING HERE TO STAY?
The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in an age of online learning in which students are taught remotely. But according to Joel Klein, who was New York City’s schools chancellor from 2002 to 2010, it’s going to be enormously difficult to make virtual classes as effective as normal in-person schooling.
“As a general rule, I’ll start with this: I don’t think online learning is likely to ever be as good as in-person learning,” Klein said. Students interested in listening to “the great lectures” may not have much of a problem, he added, but that’s “a very small slice of learning.”
“If you want interactive learning — call on different students in the class, follow up, students discussing things among themselves, different people taking different viewpoints and arguing, trying to read the class, seeing how interested they are in the discussion — those kinds of things are going to be harder and harder to do, particularly with younger and younger kids.”
Younger students, Klein said, require “highly personalized learning” in which “one kid could be working on fractions, another could be working on long division, or what have you.” And this is hard to implement in an online teaching environment.
“I’m not saying there aren’t values to online learning, but compared to classroom learning — especially when people are younger — I think it’s hard to get comparability.”
As for whether parents can expect schools to be physically open this fall, it will depend a great deal on where the schools are, as different states and municipalities deal with differing rates of infection. “Most schools, most colleges that I’ve read about are trying to find a way to open in the fall,” Klein said.
But opening up the schools may also require them to divide the students into different groups. This could mean half the students at a given school would come back in the fall, while others would have to wait for the spring.
A more ad hoc system, in which schools might be open one week only to be suddenly shuttered the next, would take a toll on parents, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods where parents have less flexibility in terms of taking off work or hiring babysitters.
“It’s different for kids in high school, it’s different for kids in college, who are more independent,” Klein said. At the same time, he said, he didn’t know anyone “who thinks it would be optimal” to open and close schools “every other week.”
“It might be easier to do one month on, one month off,” Klein said. “It might be easier, in some cases, to do a semester online, a semester in class. There are a lot of complications that need to be thought through in the process.” Additionally, administrators may have to consider sequestering students and teachers from high-risk groups, such as those with underlying conditions that can make COVID-19 infections more dangerous, from the rest of the school’s population.
“Anybody who’s thinking about how to deal with these problems has to be thinking that your most vulnerable have to be protected with your greatest sense of security.”
— Will Rahn
SPORTS: BASEBALL IN ASIA PROVIDES A BLUEPRINT FOR THE WAY FORWARD
While it’s impossible to know exactly what American spectator sports will look like in the new normal, the professional baseball leagues of Asia offer us some clues.
Major League Baseball has floated multiple possibilities for going forward with a season this year, including shortened schedules and playing games in empty stadiums. It has also considered holding the entire regular season in Arizona and Florida, where spring training facilities are located, or quarantining whole teams together.
These ideas present massive logistical challenges, such as how teams could be quarantined while players also maintain contact with their families. Other leagues, such as the NBA, NHL and NFL, which begin their new seasons later in the year, are likewise scrambling to plan what their respective games will look like when the fall comes.
Nevertheless, Lindsay Adler, a reporter who covers the New York Yankees for the Athletic, said she’s increasingly optimistic baseball players will take the field again, “as states are obviously talking about finding ways to open back up and as the league has been floating more and more ideas.”
She expects MLB will “get creative.” And that means the new season “will not look like the baseball that we’ve ever seen before.”
That brings us to Asia, where some professional baseball has resumed, albeit differently than in the past. What leagues do there could offer a blueprint for the resumption of spectator sports in the U.S.
In Taiwan, for example, baseball is being played in empty stadiums with cardboard cutouts standing in for fans. Players and staff have their temperatures taken and undergo infrared body scans before taking the field. And after a few delays, the KBO League in South Korea has started preseason training and is set to begin a full 144-game season on May 5.
Sung Min Kim, who works in the research department for the KBO’s Lotte Giants, told Yahoo News there will be a few changes to the game in Korea this year. For example, if any staffer or player becomes infected with COVID-19, the whole league will shut down for two weeks.
To adjust to the delay in the start of the season, the KBO has shortened its playoff schedule.
A domed stadium will be used as a neutral field for games as the season enters the winter months. And, as in Taiwan, the stands will have no fans.
“There’s empty stadiums here, but on the field there’s baseball going on and players are giving it their best,” said Kim.
The sky-high ratings for last week’s virtual NFL draft indicates that Americans are eager for sports to begin again. And while we wait for the North American leagues to get started, ESPN is reportedly close to a deal to air Korean baseball in the States.
The KBO may be the best chance for American fans to watch professional sports for some time. Both Taiwan and South Korea have been widely praised for their handling of the pandemic. As of Monday, Taiwan had had fewer than 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19. There have been more than 10,000 confirmed cases in South Korea, which has already tested a massive segment of its population for the virus, but the per capita infection rate there is minuscule compared with that of the U.S.
“It’s pretty clear that people are desperate for sports,” Sung Min Kim said. “I’m hoping that the KBO can be a way for people to escape the cruel reality.”
— Hunter Walker
THE HOSPITALS: TREATING THE VIRUS — AND OTHER AILMENTS — SIMULTANEOUSLY
The rise of telehealth as an alternative to in-person consultations during this crisis may portend a lasting shift in the way certain services are provided going forward. But when it comes to hospitals, there are many crucial aspects to health care that cannot be conducted over the internet.
Early data and anecdotal reports from doctors and hospitals around the country indicate a significant drop in the numbers of patients being treated for heart attacks, strokes, appendicitis and other potentially life-threatening conditions during the coronavirus crisis. This has raised concerns among doctors about a possible second wave of critically ill patients whose condition worsened while they delayed treatment during the pandemic.
In addition to a backlog of noncoronavirus emergencies, there will likely be untold health impacts stemming from postponed preventive procedures like colonoscopies, mammograms and even vaccines. In other words, we’re going to need to find a way to get non-COVID patients who are wary of getting infected back into hospitals. And that will likely require figuring out a way to sequester those with coronavirus away from the general hospital population.
“It’s important that we rapidly get to a point where people feel comfortable obtaining routine care,” said Dr. David Shaywitz — an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research focuses on health care policy and medical innovation — and a health technology advisor in Silicon Valley.
Shaywitz argued that, due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 and the fact that it can be spread by people without symptoms, hospitals won’t truly be able to return to a version of normal until there is enough “contact tracing” and widely available, reliable testing — both for the disease itself and antibodies.
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” he said, acknowledging that trying to gain control over a virus about which so much remains unknown is “like building the plane while you’re flying it.” Hospitals are being forced to make “consequential decisions while [still trying to] understand exactly what’s going on,” he said.
While many hospitals are currently operating under the presumption that everyone is coronavirus-positive until proven otherwise, he predicts that as the risk of infection is reduced, hospitals may start to confine suspected coronavirus patients to a particular wing or building.
As the number of infections further decreases, a specific hospital floor, and, ultimately, a special isolated room or group of rooms could be used to separate COVID patients from others, as hospitals already do with less-common infectious diseases.
There’s also the question of when and how hospitals will allow COVID patients to see visitors.
Shaywitz said that the question of whether and how to lift strict visitor restrictions, which many hospitals have implemented in light of the current crisis, is “a great example of what hospitals are going to really have to wrestle with” as they seek to cautiously resume providing regular care to patients amid ongoing coronavirus concerns.
While he believes that “not allowing patients to see family is harmful” and getting rid of such restrictions “will be really essential,” he also said that doing so won’t be possible until the prevalence of coronavirus within the population is low enough that the presence of visitors doesn’t endanger the hospital patients and staff.
Shaywitz said he could imagine an incremental process for lifting visitor restrictions, maybe initially requiring that all visitors wear masks, eventually loosening restrictions as the rates of infection “return to tolerable limits.”
But even hospitals in communities with comparatively few infections will have to grapple with the new reality for the foreseeable future.
Matt Simons, an emergency care physician at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Ore., said, “The idea that we can safely get back to normal operating procedures seems pretty distant.”
According to a model developed by researchers at the University of Washington, Oregon is projected to be among the states with the fewest coronavirus deaths per capita, with just 83 deaths as of Thursday evening, per the latest numbers from Johns Hopkins University.
Still, without a vaccine in sight and antibody tests so far proving to be unreliable, Simons said, “it’s hard to see what care looks like, both in clinics and emergency departments over the next year.”
Currently, Simons said, the waiting room at his hospital’s emergency department is empty, but that’s no guarantee that it will look that way in six months.
“What do you do with someone with respiratory issues?” he asked, noting that “respiratory issues are one of the chief presenting complaints to an emergency department.”
He said these kinds of questions are part of ongoing conversations between doctors, infectious disease specialists and hospital administrators.
“No one is an expert here,” Simons said, suggesting that “some humility in the face of that might be the best thing.”
— Caitlin Dickson
THE WORKPLACE: STRONGER UNIONS, FEWER HOURS IN THE OFFICE
White-collar workers and their offices will be forever altered by the coronavirus pandemic. For those who’ve shifted to telecommuting, the move to working from home could be permanent for millions, as managers who’ve feared a reduction in productivity accept the new reality preferred by workers.
“We’ll see much more remote work,” Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, told Yahoo News. “We’ve been sort of plodding along with increases of 10 or 15 percent a year for the last decade, but we’re still only up to less than 4 percent working from home half the time or more.”
The pandemic looks likely to change that. “We’re predicting by the end of 2021, it’ll be more like 30 percent of people,” she said.
For the return to office work, Lister said, proposed reopening plans include a wide swath of potential changes. In addition to the number of employees who will likely shift to work from home at least a few days a week, you’ll see staggered shift times, temperature checks and conference rooms with seating halved, if not shut down completely.
There will also likely be little changes, like adjustments to elevator etiquette and the reduction of common areas, and big ones, like companies downsizing office space to save money as more employees shift to remote work.
For those who can’t telecommute, such as workers in the manufacturing and service sectors, there will also be enormous changes.
“This crisis is going to shift work permanently,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union.
One way workplaces could shift is a rise in organized labor, as Henry said more Americans are realizing how many millions are still going to work amid the pandemic despite a lack of paid sick leave and wages in some instances falling far below $15 per hour. There has also been a surge in interest in securing rights for members of the “gig economy,” who’ve been hard hit and put in danger during the shutdown.
In the weeks since the county began shutting down, there have already been a number of pushes for workplace rights and funding. Some historians have pointed out that, at times, pandemics have shifted the economy away from the wealthy and flattened inequality.
Because experts aren’t sure if this will end — some believe the coronavirus could become seasonal, like the flu — physical workplaces themselves are almost certain to change as well. In one example, Henry said, there is already a push for the reorganization of fast food kitchens, allowing workers to adhere to social distancing guidelines and not bump into each other in the normally tight spaces.
— Christopher Wilson
RESTAURANTS: WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN THEY OPEN AGAIN
Previewing his six-point plan to reopen California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently painted an eerie picture of how things will change when the state’s shuttered restaurants finally reopen and regulars finally start to trickle back in.
“You may be having dinner with a waiter wearing gloves, maybe a face mask,” Newsom predicted. “Dinner where the menu is disposable, where half of the tables in that restaurant no longer appear, where your temperature is checked before you walk into the establishment.
“These are likely scenarios as we begin to process the next phase,” the governor continued. “Normal it will not be.”
But then, nothing about the past six weeks has been normal for America’s restaurants.
Forced to suspend dine-in service during lockdown, desperate establishments already accustomed to operating on razor-thin margins either have had to get creative — such as switching to app-enabled delivery and takeout, serving cocktails to go, and transforming into miniature grocery stores — or close their doors. Some got creative, then closed anyway. Many will never reopen.
Eight million restaurant workers are now unemployed, or roughly two-thirds of the entire industry. The ones still lucky enough to be working risk their health every day. And while big chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Shake Shack get approved for small business bailouts, thousands of actual small businesses have been shut out from relief funds. When the Paycheck Protection Program website reopened Monday with another $321 billion in funds — the first $349 million ran out in 13 days — it immediately crashed, unable to handle the flood of applications.
As states start to lift lockdown orders, the surviving restaurants will have to start fighting for their lives in a different way — by somehow reassuring anxious Americans that dining out won’t kill them.
In Los Angeles, a small, shipping-container sandwich shop called Wax Paper, famous for offerings named after public-radio hosts, has responded nimbly to the crisis, closing its small patio, switching to a skeleton staff, encouraging online orders, donning masks and gloves, and implementing clear-cut distancing protocols around payment, pickup and food prep.
So far, Wax Paper’s husband-and-wife owners, chef Peter Lemos and general manager Lauren Lemos, have just barely been able to keep their business afloat (even though they didn’t get any PPP funds the first time around and are still waiting to hear about the second round of loans).
“We really understand how fortunate we are,” Peter told Yahoo News. “We had a mostly takeout model already, with super-small space that just wasn't conducive to large groups.”
But the Lemoses have also grappled with lots of uncertainty: What’s comfortable for customers? What’s safe for staff? Where to get bread when a vendor bails? And things will only become less certain as the official restrictions are relaxed and everyone struggles to figure out the new rules of the road.
“Right now, it’s very sterile,” said Lauren, who prides herself on remembering every customer’s name. “It’s one in, one out. Wear a mask. Don’t stay to chat. Like, the complete opposite of what we’re used to.”
But what comes after sterility and before immunity? The Lemoses have more than just Wax Paper to worry about. They’re also approaching the final stages of opening their first real dine-in restaurant, Lingua Franca. Or they were approaching the final stages, before the pandemic.
With the clock ticking on their permits and industry investors in retreat, the Lemoses have launched a $50,000 GoFundMe campaign so they can make the down payment on their interior build-out, continue to pitch investors and, they hope, maintain at least some of their momentum.
Meanwhile, the entire concept of Lingua Franca, which was years in the making, is having to shift overnight to meet the moment. “We imagined this really tiny restaurant where you can just sense the energy and excitement,” Peter said. “But that may or may not come back for a while. That might not be what Lingua Franca is. Maybe it’s patio seating with a plant between each table. Maybe it’s groceries for the neighborhood and food to go.
“No one knows what the right thing to do is, aside from these general guidelines about wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart,” Peter continued. “All you can do is just take the information you have and try to make the best decisions you can for yourselves and your staff and your customers. If something changes, you have to be able to move with it.
“That might be the model going forward: restaurants that are a lot more fluid. Not just tasting menus. Not just multimillion-dollar places with 200 seats. Delivery, subscription services, crowdfunding — all kinds of new approaches. There’s going to be a lot more creativity.”
— Andrew Romano
DATING: BACK TO OLD-FASHIONED COURTSHIP?
Navigating the earliest stages of modern dating has always been tricky, and the COVID-19 pandemic won’t make it any easier. But depending on what you’re looking for, it could make it more fun.
Thanks to the shutdown orders blanketing the country, most singles must now rely solely on app-based dating and videoconferencing to re-create the magic of chatting about their musical tastes in dark, loud and crowded bars. Apps have gone from a way to find an in-person date to the main method by which dates are conducted.
Yet love, as we all know, is far from dead. Biological anthropologist Helen Fischer told Yahoo News that quarantines won’t alter the fundamentals of human behavior, even if the usage of dating apps like Bumble, Tinder and Hinge increases.
“Love is primordial, it’s adaptable and it is eternal. It will last as long as we laugh as a species, so it will be here,” said Fischer, the chief science adviser to Match.com. “The only real algorithm is your own brain. So don’t let a pile of scientists say that these dating sites are going to change the brain. They can’t.”
But coronavirus will have a long-term impact on dating, Fischer said, most especially in the courtship stage. COVID-19 now requires that the early stages of dating remain largely online, a trend she thought would continue even as social distancing guidelines ease.
“In other words, couples will first be introduced on the internet, talk for a period of time, visually seeing their partner through FaceTime or Skype or Zoom, and then go out and meeting, rather than being introduced on the internet and going straight out to meeting,” said Fischer.
In fact, the next few months might be good news for those who yearn for Jane Austen-esque courtship rituals. In that pre-modern age, romantic letters and correspondence often happened long before a prospective couple would agree to meet in person. In the COVID-19 age, many singles may adopt a modern variation on that old-fashioned approach.
“I think it may initiate more self-disclosure, not really advertising as much with your looks and your body and your money and your sex appeal,” Fischer explained.
All this could mean fewer in-person first dates, which itself could result in less time and money wasted on relationships that are not meant to be. An extended period of online dating could result in more earnest and meaningful conversations happening earlier than they would normally, which in turn might weed out less-compatible prospects earlier.
“I think it adds a stage that is very sensible and quite positive,” she said.
And while the pandemic has already led to a glut of sexually frustrated singles, Fischer expects that, for the foreseeable future, people will still be less inclined to jump right into bed with a potential mate.
“Just because something suddenly becomes totally available doesn’t mean that everybody’s gonna go straight for it,” Fischer explained. “It’s my guess that we’re very sensitive now to viruses. Rather than going out and having sex willy-nilly, I think we may end up having less sex willy-nilly.”
— Brittany Shepherd
RELIGION: FAITH IN A WORLD OF CAUTION
The coronavirus pandemic has already upended the way Americans worship, forcing priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and other clergy to set aside the physical rituals that have made religion a communal experience for millennia in favor of virtual services conducted online.
States vary somewhat in how shutdown orders have affected houses of worship. But according to some members of the clergy, how they worship will change regardless of what officials decide.
The minute she got word that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp would begin easing lockdown restrictions and allow in-person church services to resume this past weekend, the Rev. Galen Mirate knew her congregation wouldn’t be coming back — as much as she might have wished otherwise.
“Before the governor was done making this announcement, I was getting emails from parishioners saying, ‘No, no, no, we can’t do this,’” Mirate told Yahoo News.
“For us, normal is 50 or so people inside the sanctuary, with things like the Eucharist and an awful lot of backslapping and hugging and handshaking and carrying on during the peace. Usually that’s wonderful. But you can imagine how that would strike fear into the hearts of people — most of them older — who’ve now been confronted with the reality of this virus.”
Mirate is a pastor of the Episcopal Church of St. John and St. Mark. Her church is in Albany, one of the Georgia cities hardest hit by the virus. And her experience in Georgia, the first state in the U.S. to give churches the go-ahead to reopen, suggests that Friday prayers, Saturday synagogue and Sunday services won’t be returning to normal anytime soon, even as governors relax their official stay-at-home restrictions.
The reality is that no matter what the law allows, religious observance is likely to look and feel very different for months, if not years, to come.
“Some of my parishioners are going to want to go back to the old normal right away,” Mirate predicts. “And that’s not going to happen.”
In Georgia, Kemp said, churches could hold in-person services if “done in accordance with strict social distancing protocols,” later adding that “online, call-in or drive-in services remain good options” as well.
Over the following weekend, nearly every house of worship in the state went with one of those other, less risky options — from Mirate’s rural, predominantly African-American county, where a February funeral sparked the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak, to the less-affected towns of northern Georgia.
In part, that’s because most Georgia church leaders won’t yet allow in-person services — and, as Mirate noted, most church members wouldn’t yet attend.
The list of religious authorities who have banned their flocks from gathering is long; it includes the leaders of Georgia’s Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist churches, among others, as well as the state’s Jewish and Muslim leaders. The only reported exception was the Redeeming Love Church of God the Bibleway in Statesboro, which had already been ignoring the state’s stay-at-home order for weeks and again held two services Sunday with about 20 people in attendance.
Eventually, though, congregants will begin to attend in person, not just in Georgia but nationwide. But when — and how? A document released by the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia on April 23 may be a sign of things to come.
The document declares that in-person worship can resume only when “the number of new [COVID-19] cases has declined for at least 14 days” and “rapid diagnostic testing capacity is sufficient to test, at minimum, all people with COVID-19 symptoms.” It then outlines a series of new protocols that would profoundly alter services during the next phase of the pandemic.
Parishioners, according to the document, will have to keep 6 feet apart in the pews, and wear masks “to enter and leave the church.” There will be coffee hours without “any food or beverages” to “reduce the temptation towards unsafe behaviors.”
There will also be waiting lists for services that have reached capacity. Individual churches will be responsible for sanitizing all hard surfaces before, between and after services. Church doors will remain open to keep people from touching the doorknobs.
The list of new restrictions goes on. No more choirs, no handshaking or hugging. Communion will still be offered, but only to one person at a time.
The online services will continue for those who remain “appropriately concerned about returning.”
“When we do come back, I’m going to feel hesitant about it,” Mirate says. “I am accustomed to being responsible for people’s spiritual well-being. But I have come to realize that I am now responsible for their physical health.
“And that is tremendously unnerving. If I’m not sufficiently careful, I can kill you too? I’m like, ‘How are we going to do this?’”
— Andrew Romano
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