I generally keep my posts apolitical, and what follows is not meant to be political in any way. My intent is to discuss what I think the exit from the pandemic might look like.
The world has changed; of that, there can be no doubt. We have all gotten used to doing take out from our favorite restaurants, or even learning how to cook (which I love!). But let's face it, the social fabric of our society has definitely changed. There are some people who are not all that concerned about COVID infection, who consider it a fait accompli, meaning they assume everyone is eventually going to get this thing and there is not much we can do about it, and therefore, not much we should do about it but care for them when they fall ill. Others consider the risk to be extremely high and are very afraid of loved ones or themselves becoming infected. Still, others look to the vaccine as the ultimate solution. All of these positions are totally understandable. Yet, in the current climate, they seem irreconcilable.
In such circumstances, how can normalcy return? How will it return? Will it be like a light switch going off and then on? That doesn't seem realistic. There are definitely people who will embrace that day and throw away their masks, but definitely not everybody. I know many perfectly healthy and very intelligent young people who have been extremely diligent in staying at home, socially distancing, and even insisting that family members get tested before coming to visit. I don't think the members of this group will turn on a dime and drop the protective measures they have adopted, not overnight.
So, then the question has to be: How will we walk out of this pandemic?
There are many angles to look at here.
Personally, I have given this a lot of thought, because I used to travel at least every couple of weeks for at least a day or two at a time. I used to complain about the traffic on the way to and around O'Hare! Oh, how things have changed. Right now, I would love to have to eat some bad terminal fast food somewhere, anything to be out of Chicago! (Note: I'm not ready for LaGuardia, just yet.)
As I have carefully considered the return of travel to society, there seem to be two major categories to consider. First, there is the vacation traveler.
According to my very, anecdotal research, people want to go somewhere. Anywhere! Airfares have started to tick up, especially for the classic spring break periods. I can certainly empathize with that! Some of you may be living near a beach or in a warm climate where everything is sunny. But for those of us in the Midwest, or Northeast? Let's just say that, after being cooped up in our homes for many months, it's time to get away. Seriously.
Unfortunately, that's not the category of travel by which the airlines make their money (with the possible exception of Southwest: Symbol LUV). They need the other category: the business traveler. This cool graphic shows a comparison of the last two years of air travel. The gray bars show the normal flight volumes of 2019, while the blue bars show them for 2020. It's not a pretty picture if you are an airline executive.
So, exiting from this? There are some things we know, and some things that we don't. First, it seems likely that for any international flights there will be some testing protocols in the short term (let's call it 6-12 months) under which you will need to be tested for COVID-19 before boarding, and in some cases tested again when you arrive at your destination. The effective penalty for testing positive is going to be punitive. By that, I mean you can expect to spend the next two weeks in a local hotel, in quarantine. It's good news if you are in a sunny Mexican resort and have booked your own cabana. Maybe, it's not so good if you are in an Eastern European industrial park. This will definitely put a damper on both business and pleasure international air travel for as long as it remains in force.
And specifically, regarding business travel: not every person, even just here in the U.S., is going to be eager to suddenly welcome sales people, technicians, consultants, and so forth, from hither and yon, into their places of business. I think the phrase "Let's just Zoom" will become quite popular. In fact, I am going to copyright LJZ! It might not be as popular as NVM, but who knows? In addition to people being hesitant to receive visitors into their offices, the whole convention industry may need to be rethought. It may be several years before some of the huge annual conferences restart again.
Restaurants, Sports, and Concerts
No one wants to go to a baseball game right now more than I do. I don't care if it's 110 degrees and humid, or 25 degrees and raining. Warm beer and a cold hot dog please! However, I think that the idea of packed crowds at concerts, ball games, theaters and the like is still off a lot of folks' radars. Like I said before, I do not think this will be a light switch moment for everyone at once. When will Chicago's United Center next sell out? And what about crossing state (or even county) lines? Every locale has a different set of rules and restrictions. This is further confused by Federal guidelines. This hodgepodge will undoubtedly slow the return to normalcy down to an agony. Sort of like following the Bulls this year.
This is a real mystery. For many months, my belief has been that the development of some kind of quick test was imminent, one that would open the school doors. These tests do exist now and are very accurate, but they do not seem to have caught the attention of the public.
Here in Illinois, we are finally restarting several school sports. To me, it would make sense to test every player an hour before a game with one of these quick tests. Assuming they are all negative…game on. That is not happening. All of the kids will be playing with masks on. Here's a little conundrum: if you are a referee, how do you blow the whistle while wearing a mask?
There are many intricacies around opening schools, including teacher safety and many other things I am not smart enough to have even considered, but the impact on daily life of them not being open is obviously huge and pretty much unquantifiable. Parents and students are working through it, but again, it's not going to end with the flip of a switch.
Commuting and Working in Cities
I can't really say I ever enjoyed commuting. It felt like I threw away at least two hours on it, every day. If I compute the amount of time I spent on Metra trains over the years, it makes me want to cry, "Alas for my squandered youth!"
On a normal day, I had to be at the commuter lot by around 6:45am to get a spot. When I have driven past that lot lately, it looks like it's around 80% empty. Trains run on reduced schedules and they look empty as they trundle by. The good news (I guess) is that rush hour traffic is way down. The few times I have been down to our office, the building (connected to the commuter train station by the way), I swear I saw tumbleweeds. Most of the food court shops are shuttered. Will this barren tundra return to teeming jungle overnight? I don't think so. Many of my friends have gotten quite comfortable working remotely and keeping those two or so hours a day for themselves. I don't see them clamoring to get back to a daily commute any too quickly.
At any rate, the exit from the current state of affairs does not look like a switch-throw's instant.
I'm probably not saying anything that you haven't already considered or felt, but as terrible as the last twelve months (so far) have been, I don't imagine it's all going away suddenly. But it will end, eventually, and that, I think we all agree, is a welcome thought.
Final, final thought: I can't stage a live major league baseball game at home, but I can warm up some beer and chill a few hot dogs.
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