For more than a year now, the focus of America and the world has been on getting back to normal. The questions have revolved around what mitigations and restrictions are necessary and what metrics will show us that a return to normal is safe. But, like the elastic waistband on my undershorts after Thanksgiving dinner, when things are pulled out of their normal range, they often never return to quite the way they were before.
Now I’m not one of the people who claim that the pandemic will drastically alter our way of life for all eternity. We aren’t going to end up with an authoritarian government or have to wear masks indefinitely. The vaccines aren’t going to make us grow a third arm and the tracking chips inside won’t give us the ability to pick up wifi directly in our brains (as cool as that would be).
Instead, I think that some of the innovations that we’ve seen over the past year are likely here to stay. And that isn’t a bad thing because quite a few of those minor changes to how we do business make life a lot easier.
For example, curb service and delivery have taken on new prominence. This isn’t a totally new thing, especially if you live in an urban area, but for those of us who liven in the country, the ability to have food delivered to our homes is a newfound luxury. We only live a few miles from one of Georgia’s largest cities, but we were outside of the delivery area of every restaurant before the pandemic. Now, thanks to online delivery services, we can have a variety of hot food delivered right to our door.
And there are expanded choices for delivery now, even if you previously had the option to get pizzas or Chinese food delivered. It seems that these days almost every restaurant has delivery and curbside pickup options (another innovation) available.
Another new change is the ability to utilize in-store and curbside pickup at retailers from grocery to hardware stores. Even when the pandemic is only an unpleasant memory, there will still be value in being able to place your order online and then have a store employee bring it to you in the parking lot. Not having to navigate the store looking for what you need and then stand in the checkout line is a huge timesaver, especially for those with small children in tow, and I’ll be surprised if stores don’t keep these services post-pandemic.
Among the new delivery and carryout options are alcoholic drinks. In the past, alcoholic takeouts were heavily frowned upon except maybe in New Orleans or Las Vegas. The pandemic brought the ability to get your preferred adult beverage on a to-go basis. I think that many communities that allowed these sales during the pandemic will rethink them going forward, but some vestiges will remain.
And speaking of not standing in line, I’ve become a big fan of the “scan and go” feature on the Sam’s Club app. Although I think this feature was available before the pandemic, I’ve used it a lot over the past year. As you do your shopping, you simply scan the bar codes on the items into the app. When you’re done, you pay through the app and completely skip the checkout line. This is so convenient that the only reason I can see to go through the checkout is to flirt with the cashier. (Note to my wife: I did say that I use the app, not the checkout line.)
Zoom conference calls and distance learning are also here to stay. Again, these are not new technologies, but the pandemic likely helped to speed their adoption. Even after in-person meetings become the norm once again, I think that these technologies will be frequently used as a fallback.
With online learning, schoolchildren might never have a snow day again as long as they have electricity and cell signals. At the beginning of the 2020 school year, our school district issued every student a Google Chromebook. These computers were used by both virtual learners and in-person classes. If students were exposed to COVID-19, they simply transitioned to learning at home. This technology is not perfect and the effectiveness of the instruction depends a lot on the student, but it has the potential to free students from brick-and-mortar classrooms and allow home-bound students to get more effective instruction. It might even allow parents to take their children on trips during the school year without falling behind their classmates.
Likewise, virtual church services will remain. This option will be popular for the sick and elderly in particular. But even if you’re on vacation or away on business, you will still be able to tune in and hear your pastor.
Medicine is also an area where virtual meetings are a boon. Telemedicine allows doctors to see more patients and may reduce wait times for an appointment. It will also make it easier to see specialists who may be far away. For example, my mom is a cancer survivor with a compromised immune system due to chemotherapy. Telemedicine allows her to see her cancer doctor without driving hours and exposing herself to diseases on the trip.
Along those lines, there will probably be more people who work from home than before. The technology is ready and, for many occupations, there is simply no reason to go to the office every day. Over the past year, many workers have upgraded their home offices and those spaces will likely be put to good use in the future.
I think that we might also see the plexiglass partitions that many stores have installed at their registers or between restaurant tables remain in place. Even without a deadly virus on the loose, these sanitary barriers add a measure of security and safety from customers and might help to prevent the spread of more mundane bugs like the flu virus.
And speaking of the flu virus, I do think that we are likely to see more people wearing masks on a regular basis. I remember seeing Asian travelers wearing masks in airports when I was an airline pilot during the SARS outbreak of 2003. At that point, they were an oddity and novelty. No more.
I believe that most people will put aside their masks as more people are vaccinated and the number of infections falls, but I think that we’ll see a fair number of Americans who keep wearing them. This is likely to be people with compromised immune systems or older adults who are susceptible to other diseases such as the flu. Some people will keep their masks on and it won’t seem that odd to us.
The reason is that, despite the claims to the contrary, masks do provide a measure of protection against viruses. My primary care doctor has had a plaque on his wall since long before the COVID-19 pandemic urging patients to wear masks if they have flu symptoms. Masks are not a conspiracy. They have been a medical tool for more than a century.
I think that hand sanitizer has become a way of life as well. Over the past year, we’ve become a nation of hand washers, and hopefully, that habit will stick because, let’s face it, our hands can get pretty nasty. It may not be COVID-19 that you’re putting into your body with dirty hands, but it could be another nasty bug. I’d bet that the hand sanitizer dispensers in many stores and restaurants will be here to stay.
I bought a germ key, a pocket-size tool for hands-free door-opening and button pushing, to help keep my hands clean before I was vaccinated. I think I’ll hang on to that for flu season. (I’ve seen these for $15 in local stores, but I got mine for $2 on Amazon. Shop around before you buy.)
And speaking of hands, perhaps the handshake will go the way of the dodo. This custom likely began in the Middle Ages as a way to show others that you were unarmed, but it has little purpose today. With luck, the handshake will never come back and we can continue doing fist and elbow bumps or awkward waves until something better comes along.
There are a couple of macro factors that may be here to stay as well. The pandemic led many urban dwellers to flee the cities for suburbs and the country. After seeing how quickly cities can become death traps, many of these people may never return, especially if they can do their jobs remotely. The pandemic shift to a lower population density may begin a long-term demographic trend.
Finally, mRNA vaccine technology is here to stay. The technology proved itself in the extremely quick development of very effective vaccines. When the next pathogen arises, we may be able to develop and deploy a vaccine even quicker than we did for COVID-19.
The pandemic is ending, but we won’t return to a world that is exactly as we left it in January 2020. New technologies are here to stay, even if they won’t be as prominent as they were over the past few months. Hopefully, the post-pandemic world will be a little better than it was before, both from a technology standpoint and from the perspective of caring a little more for our neighbors than we did in the past.
I posed the question about what would remain after the pandemic on Twitter. If you helped me brainstorm for this article, I want to thank you. If you didn’t, you can join the discussion here.
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David, I wholeheartedly agree. I don't think I ever did online ordering/curbside pickup for grocery shopping before the pandemic. But I don't think that I'll ever go back to the old way. It saves much time strolling the aisles and waiting in line, by ordering what you want online, and then have store employees loaded it into the trunk of your car. If the store couldn't fulfill an item due to them being out of stock, then I shop in person for those few things that were out. Being able to do online then curbside for restaurants is nice too. The orders tend to be more accurate than going there, and having someone misinterpret what I verbally said giving my order to them, and getting the wrong things.
And I think the new normal of washing and sanitizing hands is a nice reassurance for those of us who eat at fast food/fast casual restaurants. I always kind of wondered if the youngsters working there washed and sanitized their hands as well as they should. So this renewed emphasis on sanitization is a win-win.
And it's interesting how you mentioned about Asian travelers wearing masks during SARS of 2003. Mask wearing is very much ingrained in their practices. During my trips to Korea, Hong
Kong, Taiwan, and Japan over the past years during late fall/early winter, many people would wear masks as a preventive measure during flu season or whenever they feel their health circumstances warranted it. Sanitization and general cleanliness are also so ingrained in their culture, and I really admire that. Their hotels are immaculate, and I never had to complain about a dirty hotel room there. Hotels here in the US and to some extent in Europe are more hit or miss, but they don't seem as immaculate as the ones over in Asia, generally speaking.
So yes, this "new normal" is one of the silver linings of the pandemic. We are indeed blessed to live in an era where technology makes all this possible.
Speaking as someone on the "inside" of the plexiglass partitions, I hope they do go away. They make it difficult to put your groceries on the belt or counter, they're awkward to clean (or clean around), and they don't stop whatever contact risks we had to take before. They're just in the way.