Covid-19 will be with us for a while longer. If history is a guide, it may stay at pandemic levels for another year or even two, depending on how quickly we get a majority of the population immunized, and how resistant to the vaccines the variants prove to be. One thing we know for sure is that viruses mutate. It’s why there’s no cure for the common cold, and why we need a new flu shot every year. I’m infamously pessimistic, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think Covid-19 is going to remain a part of the landscape to the extent that we need to inoculate against it every year, just as we do influenza. All of which is to say that with luck, Covid-19 will become a chronic but manageable health risk.
Trying to predict what we’ll look like on the other side is probably an exercise in futility. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to take stock every few months. I started these columns last year with a five-part series called “A Turning Point,” and feel that it’s time to again check in on the issues in play. If anything is certain, it is that some things will have to change even more. Right now, a return to pre-crisis “normal” seems like wishful thinking.
The pandemic has been an existential threat for in-person small businesses like gyms and salons. Big industries like travel, entertainment, sports, and hospitality have also been hard hit. Businesses that can survive or even prosper online may in fact be doing better than they did before the virus. My brother has an acting school in Dallas. Fort Worth was as far away as most students came. He was forced to close the physical school and take the instruction online. To his great surprise, he now has students from all over the world. He doesn’t miss the overhead, and says he’ll never go back to a brick-and-mortar office. What do stories like his say about the hundreds of millions of empty square feet of office space across the country and the world?
Will those who have discovered home grocery deliveries ever want to go back to the store? Will adults who feed multiple streaming services to their giant flatscreen TV’s ever venture back out to theatres, or will the movie exhibition industry be totally reliant on business from kids and young adults who want to go with friends to see effects-laden super-hero movies on the big screen? And if so, will that be enough business to sustain operations?
Even though estimates are 40 percent won’t survive, I worry less about bars and restaurants. New ones will spring up to take their place because humans are social animals who, since time immemorial, have gathered to share a bottle of wine and break bread. Most agree that’s what they miss most.
Similarly, we’ll slowly return to the airports. Travel will rebound, even though the airlines think it will take a few years to return to pre-pandemic levels. Stadiums and coliseums, however, will see full stands as soon as it’s deemed safe. Okay, maybe not all teams will enjoy a resurgence--the lost-boys of the Chargers displaced in LA come to mind—but most fans are anxious to get back out there.
We also love sharing the performing arts, and I’m unsure how live (and even recorded) music evolves. Taylor Swift used the pandemic year to release two critically acclaimed albums that were recorded in each contributing player’s home studio. The changed environment actually freed her from her typical creative process, yielding some of her best work yet. Her producer asked a pregnant question in the performance-doc “Folklore” on Disney+: “Is this the way we’ll make albums going forward?” They saved a lot of time and money working at home, but how much collaborative spark did they miss by not playing together in the same room?
Will live concerts get a reset? Pricing had reached the stratosphere, and people really seem to like the intimacy of the live video concert. We’ll land somewhere in the middle, I think. Big acts will return to big venues, but won’t abandon the casually intimate settings that fans can’t seem to get enough of.
Las Vegas will be back. It’s a one-stop glamour destination. We like to travel, see shows in nice, smallish theatres, gamble, and sample restaurants we can’t find locally if our home towns are not New York, Paris, Vienna, or San Francisco.
We already had serious problems with inequality in education and the justice system. Now it takes a high-speed internet connection just to engage, and many are not equipped. We’ll have to address technology inequities before the chasm gets even deeper.
These are all things we’ll have to adjust to as we slowly regain our footing.