Put aside the happy talk (and dangerously toxic advice) from President Trump. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus task force coordinator, warns that social distancing will be in place through the end of the summer. On Sunday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) took the media assembled for his daily briefing through a complex explanation of how the state will begin reopening. New York will use three criteria to evaluate progress of the pandemic (hospitalization rate, antibody testing, diagnostic testing), coordinate with neighboring states, and go through a two-phase reopening process (only after state and regional hospitalization rates decline over 14 days). New York will begin opening manufacturing and construction (subject to social distancing) and then move on to other businesses (lower risk, more essential businesses going first). Sporting events? Cuomo urged sports team owners to be creative in evaluating whether their teams could play in empty stadiums and arenas for TV audiences only.
Even if New York’s plan and those put out by states such as Maryland come off without a hitch, they will take weeks, if not months, to ramp up, subject to any setbacks (e.g., a second wave). These states are coming to grips with the reality that much of life will not change to something approximating “normal” before we get a vaccine. You likely will not enter a store without a mask, sit in a crowded movie theater or restaurant, or fly on a plane. Before there is a vaccine, you might not go to a gym, the beach or a mall — no matter what the social distancing. If you are working from home now, you may very well still be working from home six months or a year from now. Moreover, your employer may eventually decide the business can lease half the space it currently does and have you work from home permanently.
Students at K-12 schools and at colleges may go through a full year in which they never physically meet a teacher or attend a school play or an athletic event in person. Instead of live theater, concerts and sports, we might get our entertainment in a pay-per-view format. Movie theaters were dying off anyway with streaming services and big home televisions; most of the rest may vanish as well. Don’t bank on watching a summer blockbuster movie in a theater. How many of these entertainment venues will disappear permanently is unknowable.
While Trump and the Republicans insist they are going forward with a live presidential convention in August, Birx says social distancing “will be with us through the summer.” If so, get ready for both parties’ virtual conventions and virtual rallies. In March, it was hard to imagine we would go through an entire general election with no public rallies; now it seems probable. Forget door-knocking and in-person fundraisers. A presidential inauguration without a crowd on the Mall? It’s very possible. (At least we won’t argue about crowd size.)
All of this seems creepy, lonely and, in some sense, “unreal,” because our human experiences often take place in the presence of others, in public settings. Fewer public experiences and fewer public venues may leave us feeling as if we have permanently lost a year (or more) of our lives. It is simply not the same to watch a movie at home by yourself or eat takeout from plastic foam boxes, no matter how sophisticated the restaurant’s food. We crave the “real” thing.
Even after a vaccine is found, we cannot be confident we will get our old lives back. Our sense of “place” and presence may change permanently. When you do not go to an office, when our cities’ retail spaces (everything from stores to bars to restaurants to gyms) sit empty and when local theaters have gone out of business, our lives could well become more solitary, our connections to others more tenuous. We lose the casual interactions and the accidental meetings that expand our circle of friends and acquaintances. We can plan a Zoom meeting with friends we know well; we cannot bump into a friend at a restaurant or mall that has closed.
We all long for the fullness, the realness of our communal experiences. Nevertheless, we simply cannot be certain when and how we will resume our lives as they were before the pandemic. To reduce anxiety and stress about the unknown, it’s best to focus on making our lives, however presently constrained, productive and happy. What other choice do we have?