There’s not a practical return to normal anytime soon.
The short answer is until there’s a vaccine, don’t expect a return to normal. In fact, even if we segment the population into “higher risk” (elderly, weak immune system) and “lower risk” (young) individuals, physical distancing (formerly known as social distancing) will become the norm for at least a year as cases and deaths continue to grip our attention.
But as people have been asking “we get beyond the peak of the epidemic, then what? Everything reopens as before?”
No, not quite. Given the risks, it’s impossible to expect governments to simply flip a switch overnight. We are looking at a progressive policy.
The workforce: we’re undergoing a work-from-home revolution. Automation and artificial intelligence will accelerate retail and other environments rapidly. But, not all jobs will be done by robots, so when we think of a phase throughout which physical commerce returns, policy-makers will have to prioritize which businesses are most essential and safe to return.
The wild card are kids. If we want parents who have kids to get back to work, then kids need to go to camp, return to school. But while kids have better immune systems, they can serve as conduits to transmit Covid, so this is a whole other discussion and debate.
Setting aside employees with kids to look at employees with no kids, you almost start with industries, businesses that are more essential than others. Eventually restaurants may open, respecting some physical distancing. At the onset, maybe capacity is limited to 25%, then 33%, then 50% and so on. How many restaurants can maintain operations with such limited capacity, when as an industry it’s operated on razor-thin margins?
Retail is a unique challenge. On the one hand, you want stores to return but since many retailers will now increase the priority of eCommerce, I’m not sure policy-makers will assign the same urgency to bringing malls and stores back. In fact, in-store employees will find demand for their know-how in back-stores, warehouses and elsewhere in the supply chain as the economy embraces online orders and web fulfillment. In speaking to Retail executives, if before there was some hesitation around embracing digital fulfilment, ecommerce or online media, that resistance has just evaporated… Previously, the head of retail would get the big attention and resources from the CEO & CFO, going forward, that executive is sidelined and the person in charge of eCommerce is given near carte blanche. These shocks serve as accelerator of events, what would have happened over a decade will happen in months.
Colleges will likely dramatically upgrade online education. Sure, in theory, September seems like a reasonable time frame to return to campuses, but physical distancing will simply not allow for the entire student body to congregate at one place, at once. Professors will embrace online reaching and I think students would too. Professors will have no choice, given their demographics and higher risk factor. What’s the point of tenure, if your life expectancy is cut short?
Similarly, theaters will hesitate to open again prematurely, as a risk of psychological restraint and actual physical risk may hold back consumers to begin with. Not seen as an essential service, I suspect that over the months to come, a considerable volume of releases will shift to streaming platforms, while major tent pole releases are punted to 2021.
For anything like hotels and resorts to return to anything resembling normalcy, you need airlines to resume flights. And, while we saw a march towards packing an ever-increasing number of passengers on commercial airlines, will the first return of commercial flying involve a more bespoke experience with less passengers in-flight, spread out more, in an effort to dissuade concerned clients? And that’s really the point of this article, not so much that a vaccine is medically possible or necessary, but it will serve as a psychological tool to those who will not tread outside, in large crowds, as easily. Cruises will be last to return, given the mere optics and actual health risk.
Once hotels, airlines are all somewhat stable and safe, then we can discuss business Conferences, and in the meantime those whose livelihood depends on it will tap into the human spirit of ingenuity and survival to reinvent them into something that is more virtual and distant, avoiding global travel and huddling with the masses.
For live entertainment (concerts, sports matches), I think leaders of such organizations need to accept that these represent both the “least essential” and “most high risk” of all of the waves to return to normal. On one level, congregating with hundreds/thousands of fellow attendees is a psychological hurdle that is hard to forecast. But since these live events have historically drawn people from other cities and countries, then you need airlines and hotels to be operational… so until those two sectors are back, you can’t practically even plan for a return of live entertainment. But, then the risk of transmission being spread and taken back to other areas is just too high. Organizers may decide to limit the attendees to local regions, but then we’re looking at smaller events (small concerts, comedy performances) and not the large scale festivals that drive much of the commercial activity for businesses in live entertainment. There’s no easy magical solution. You can of course contemplate sports events without fans, but then athletes may themselves not want to undertake the risk without a vaccine. With a vaccine, athletes’ economic incentives may make them accept playing before empty arenas, since much of the revenues generated by sports leagues comes from the sales of rights, and not ticket sales. But, is the future of sports even fan-less? If so, what kind of future is that? No sports owner wants his or her legacy to be the Philadelphia parade of the 1918 Spanish flu. But sports leagues have a more unique challenge, say some cities are less affected and recover faster than others, can you really have league-wide games going on if some hubs like NY or Miami are more impacted than others?
This is why realistically, unless we have a vaccine, there’s no real return to normal. Whether it’s a medical necessity, placebo or prop, I don’t really see how the masses will feel comfortable packing stadiums, sitting next to people from far away. Of course, we can just accept the risk and those less at risk embrace a herd mentality, throwing caution into the wind… but even then, you are looking at multiple industries with dramatically less clients willing to accept the risk/return trade-off. The internet shrinks industries, and perhaps the future is a shrunk one in the real-world, with more activity online. Those online may have been spared the direct hit, but make no mistake about it: everyone will be affected, some overnight and suddenly, others over time and in waves. Those spared have an obligation to help in the recovery.
What do you think of this possible timeline? How do you see the return to normalcy pan out?