The reopening of the US is just around the corner, but “normal” is still a long way off


NEW YORK (AP) – Everyone wants to know: when, oh when, will it be normal again?

As some governors in the United States begin to relax the restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, hopes are increasing that life, as the Americans knew, could return. Plans that appear in many countries, however, indicate that “normal” is still a long way off.

The White House Adviser, Dr. Deborah Birx says the Americans will have social distancing all summer. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards warns of a “different way of life” until there is a widespread vaccine – perhaps not until next year. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, says: “There is no return to yesterday in life.”

From the beginning, the pandemic forced impossible decisions: physical or mental health? Economic wellbeing or medical security? Most states joined the world and turned the dial down to close shops and restaurants, factories and schools. Ask people to stay mostly in their homes. Now the dial starts to move in the opposite direction.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp is pushing for one of the most aggressive reopening plans in the United States. Barbershops, gyms, and nail studios were allowed to reopen on Friday, and restaurant service and film screenings resumed on Monday despite warnings that the state could see an increase in infections without adequate testing.

But there, too, life on Monday was anything but normal. The guests went with X on some tables in restaurants, chatted to each other and gave commands to servers, whose faces were covered with masks.

Draft guidelines for reopening by the disease control and prevention centers on Monday provided more evidence that “normal” would not be on the menu – in restaurants or elsewhere. No break rooms for employees and no field trips for school children, the guidelines recommended. Children should eat in their classrooms, not the cafeteria, and church members should stay 6 feet apart in the church.

In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan plans to gradually reopen – which the federal government also advocates. At first small shops could be opened and some outdoor leisure activities resumed, then perhaps restaurants and bars. The third phase, in which the administration points out that there is no realistic time frame for reaching it, would enable larger social gatherings, and high-capacity bars, restaurants and entertainment venues could be reopened.

You know, the stuff that maybe just called “city life” two months ago.

Even with strict rules, it’s a delicate dance, as Dennis McKinley learned this weekend. He had planned to open two of his restaurant’s three branches, The Original Hot Dog Factory, for dining in the Atlanta area. He turned around on Monday after receiving around 40 calls from politicians, community leaders, and customers asking him to keep the guests away.

“Ultimately, the Original Hot Dog Factory can’t do it without the support of the community. I found it important to hold back and wait,” said McKinley.

What he calls community support could be described by economists as trust. This is where economies run, especially the American ones, in which consumer spending accounts for 70% of all activities. When people are afraid or times are uncertain, they tend not to shell out.

“After an initial spurt of growth when companies reopen, it will be a problem until there is a vaccine,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “I think there will be a lot of cautious people and therefore a lot of cautious companies.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, this can lead to more serious illnesses and death. And while many point to a vaccine as the safest way to normalcy, public health experts see another way that is no less daunting: millions more tests, 100,000 or more health workers to track and isolate those who are COVID-19 and a seamless data network to coordinate the effort.

The US is far from implementing this. How will Americans believe that it is safe to go out again if there is no vaccine or other calming measures – and in the face of a threat that is largely invisible?

“They know when a flood is there and when it is gone,” said Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia who wrote “The Psychology of Pandemics”. He predicts that trust will return when people see others hug, shake hands, and crowd in elevators – and don’t get sick.

While believing that most people will quickly adapt to the return to normal or “new normal”, Taylor notes that some disasters like the Great Depression have changed habits forever.

What will fade and what will survive after the corona virus? Friday evening in restaurants where the tables are just a few centimeters apart and squeeze for space in sweaty nightclubs, a hello on the cheek? What about the Sleepaway Camp and the newcomers sleeping together in dormitories and the ever smaller seats in economy class?

The historian Francis Bremer cannot help but wonder whether the new normal will ever end “history from my dining room”. Like many others, the emeritus professor of history at Millersville University in Pennsylvania has found that much can be done remotely – in his case, through the rapidly growing availability of historical documents online.

Evidence lies in this collective global experience in places that are weeks or even months ahead of the United States.

In China, where the virus appeared late last year, people who have proven to be healthy can generally move around in their own cities – tracked by mobile apps and monitored with temperature checks in public. Germany has seen far fewer deaths than its European neighbors, but life has been shortened: while it allowed smaller shops to reopen last week, it adhered to strict social distance policies and continued to demand face masks in public.

As spring blooms, Americans look forward to a whole host of new activities that they hope won’t be excluded. Californians flooded beaches and river banks last weekend as temperatures rose, which led to warnings that they could lose the few privileges they have.

But in Pennsylvania, the dial turns the other way. Governor Tom Wolf announced on Monday that he would lift some restrictions on outdoor recreation. Not only because the virus was slowed down, but also because people just needed it.

“When the weather warms up and daylight gets longer,” said Wolf, “it’s important to enjoy the time outdoors to deal with stress.”