10 Things the Pandemic Has Changed for Good
Telework and face masks aren't going away, experts say, but movie theaters might be
En español | The coronavirus pandemic is a public health emergency and an economic crisis, unprecedented in the disruption of daily life. That makes it something else, too, says Jeffrey Cole, a research professor at the University of Southern California: “Without preparation or permission, we're participating in the greatest social science experiment of all time."
The effects of lockdowns, layoffs and massive public measures to contain COVID-19 “will last long after any threat from the virus is gone,” contends Cole, who directs the Center for the Digital Future at USC's Annenberg School of Communications. “In the future, we'll talk about ‘BC,’ before corona, and after."
In collaboration with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a membership group of media, marketing and tech companies, the center last month launched the Coronavirus Disruption Project, surveying a representative sample of 1,000 Americans about how they are living and coping with the rapid changes wrought by the pandemic.
The results suggest that many of the ways we're adapting to life with the coronavirus — some digital, some physical — will reverberate long after a vaccine or treatment returns life to “normal.” Here are 10 areas where the outbreak is likely to have permanent effects on our personal, professional and cultural lives, drawn from the survey findings and experts’ analyses.
Working from home
The outbreak abruptly introduced tens of millions of workers to telecommuting, and data from the Coronavirus Disruption Project suggests a lot of them like it. Forty-two percent of survey participants said the experience has made them want to work from home more. More than 60 percent of those who are teleworking said they are enjoying the relaxed attire and grooming standards, greater flexibility and lack of a commute, and 78 percent said they are as effective or more so working from home.
"I think there will be some upside” to this disruption that workers will want to preserve, says Debra Dinnocenzo, the president of VirtualWorks, a consulting firm that advises companies on transitioning to telework. “People, families, are going to be spending more time together,” she says. “I think people will be more adamant that they want more time to work at home and not go back to all the crazy commuting they were doing before."
For many, that will sit well with their bosses. Nearly three-quarters of corporate finance officials surveyed in late March by Gartner, a business research and consulting firm, said their companies plan to move at least 5 percent of on-site workers to permanent remote status as part of their post-COVID cost-cutting efforts.
Seeing your doctor
A survey last year by the University of Michigan's National Poll on Healthy Aging (which is cosponsored by AARP) found that only 4 percent of people over 50 had seen a doctor virtually in the previous year. More than half did not know whether their doctor even offered video visits. Patients and practitioners alike were interested in telemedicine, says Preeti Malani, an infectious disease specialist at the university and the poll's director, but in no great rush.
That has changed at “the speed of light,” she says. Doctors and patients who previously might have considered telehealth only in limited circumstances, such as an illness while traveling or a routine post-op chat, are now seeing that a wider range of services can be provided virtually. Along with cutting out hassles like parking and waiting-room time, video visits make it easier for family members to observe and participate, a big boon for caregivers.
"There was a lot of interest in trying to move telehealth and to really think about it carefully and try to encourage it,” Malani says. “It was an aspirational goal, and it felt like it was a year or two away, and it never would have replaced the things it has replaced. But because of necessity, it really moved fast.”
Shopping for groceries
It's no surprise that the online purchase and home delivery of groceries has surged amid coronavirus lockdowns. A March 2020 survey of more than 1,500 consumers by investment firm RBC Capital Markets found that 55 percent had shopped for groceries online, compared with 36 percent in a similar poll in late 2018. The number doing so weekly nearly doubled. And downloads of apps for delivery services like Instacart, Walmart Grocery and Peapod doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in just a month.
RBC, which has taken consumers’ pulse on online grocery shopping regularly since 2015, dug deeper into whether the changes might be lasting. More than half of those who purchased groceries online said the COVID crisis made them more likely to keep doing so permanently. Among those who shopped only at stores, 41 percent said they planned to try delivery in the next six months. The results show “an inflection point” in consumer demand, RBC says — “a more sustainable and permanent shift” in how we buy food.
Staying in touch
Zoom happy hours. Facebook Live watch parties. Virtual visits with loved ones. One key finding of the Coronavirus Disruption Project is that while the pandemic has moved our social lives online, people report that their relationships with relatives, friends and coworkers have not suffered.
That doesn't mean we won't go back to getting drinks with friends (although going to bars ranked last among 15 things the Center for the Digital Future asked people if they missed). But “the whole notion of how we interact, socializing, has really been affected in a pretty profound way,” Cole says, especially for the many older Americans newly adopting video tools to stay in touch.
"Zoom and videoconferencing, although we make fun of it — it's not enjoyable to be in hour after hour — I think it does make people feel connected,” he says. “Plain phone calls now feel sort of shallow. We're getting used to seeing people."
Wearing face masks
Wearing masks to stem contagion has long been commonplace in many Asian countries and some Asian American communities. With COVID-19, it's taken hold among the larger U.S. public, at the urging (and, in some areas, the mandate) of federal, state and local officials. Robert Kahn, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, expects it to stay that way.
"This is the kind of event that will lead to a sea change in mask wearing,” says Kahn, who has studied American attitudes and stigmas about public face-covering. While “it's never going to be a majority phenomenon,” he predicts the practice will become routine in some settings and situations — in dense urban areas, for example, or when people with a cold or common flu need to venture out.
"Masks aren't personal protective devices, they're social protective devices,” Kahn says. “Everybody knows someone who is immunocompromised or has some of the COVID risk factors, and I think that leads to a sense of, when you go outside you might want to wear a mask — at least for enough of the population that, when you're making the decision, you won't feel like a weirdo."
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Going to the movies
The theatrical movie business was already in a decades-long decline, Cole says, accelerated in recent years by the rise of streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime and ever-shorter windows before big releases move to smaller screens. Post-pandemic, he forecasts, “movies will be one of the slowest things to return” and cinemas will close in droves.
Among 15 activities the Center for the Digital Future asked people if they missed while sheltering in place, going to the movies ranked next to last. “Streaming has filled the gap,” Cole says. “There will always be movies we want to see in the theater, but for most of us that's three to five movies a year. The whole future of film and its distribution is now up for play. But what's unquestionable is that theaters are only going to decline."
A bright spot for the business might be small independent cinemas, says Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, who has reported on art houses’ shutdown strategies. Many have pivoted nimbly to streaming indie-film fare and hosting virtual events, consolidating their communities of cinephiles, and will likely keep doing so even when they reopen. Art houses “live or die by knowing their audiences,” Hornaday says. “That relationship is going to bear fruit in a lot of different ways."
Traveling by air
Fares, route options, airline choice and other aspects of flying may fluctuate wildly as the industry adjusts to whatever new normal follows the pandemic, experts say. But travelers can reliably expect a different experience in the airport and on an airplane, for years to come.
"We're going to see cleanliness matter more,” says Gary Leff, author of the influential air-travel blog View from the Wing. “During challenging economic climates, airlines have been known to go 18 months without deep-cleaning planes, to save money. Now, no matter how tough things are, airlines will need to convince customers that these tight spaces on metal tubes are safe places to be.”
Airports will have to up their hygiene game, too, more frequently sanitizing public spaces and making room for people to maintain distancing in lines. Masks — which several U.S. airlines are now requiring for crews and passengers — will remain common in cabins, Leff says, and “it will be hard for airport security to roll back their willingness to allow larger hand sanitizer bottles through the checkpoint."
Riding public transportation
The pandemic has put public transit systems in the unenviable position of urging people not to use them unless absolutely necessary. Coming back from that will be difficult and will involve changes in how transit agencies operate, especially when it comes to convincing people to return to the close quarters of buses and subway cars, says David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government.
"There's lots of technologies that are already being developed now to enhance safety, including steps like using UV light, reconfiguring buses to provide more space between passengers, looking at doing temperature checks for people boarding,” he says. “Many riders could appreciate knowing that the person standing or sitting next to them has been screened."
Many systems have slashed service as ridership plunged. The “worst thing that could happen,” Zipper says, is for them to make those reductions permanent, as budget-strapped transit agencies did during the Great Recession. “Once you do that, the riders, they change their plans,” he says. “And they don't really come back."
Protecting your privacy
In the absence of a vaccine, contact tracing — the ability to track whom an infected person has encountered and possibly exposed, using smartphone apps and Bluetooth technology — figures prominently in strategies to contain the virus while easing social distancing. It is considered so important that archrivals Apple and Google are working together to quickly develop and distribute contact tracing tools.
The tech behemoths say their technology will protect the personal information users must share to make contact tracing work, like their health histories and the identities of people they've come in contact with. Cole is skeptical. “There's no way we come out of this without a loss of privacy,” he asserts.
And, he adds, most of us probably won't mind. “Health trumps everything,” he says. “If we really do contact tracing, it means we're going to have to let someone — the government, Google — know where we are, report who we're next to. We just don't seem to care that much when it's our health, our family's health."
Washing your hands
Thanks to the coronavirus, we all now know how to properly wash our hands (and how long it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice). And we won't soon forget, judging by new data from the Bradley Corporation, a maker of fixtures and accessories for commercial washrooms that annually surveys Americans on their handwashing habits.
Bradley's latest poll, conducted in early April to measure the coronavirus effect on hand hygiene, confirms we are washing our hands more often and for longer. Seventy-eight percent of respondents report lathering up at least six times a day, more than double the pre-pandemic rate. Seventy-seven percent follow the 20-second rule; previously, most people washed for five to 15 seconds. And 88 percent say they are likely to maintain these habits once the pandemic is over.
With more than a third of Americans now classifying themselves as “germaphobes,” per the Bradley survey, expect alcohol-based hand sanitizer to remain popular. Fior Markets, a business-intelligence firm, projects the sanitizer market to grow by 7.5 percent annually through 2027, with major producers such as Unilever boosting their manufacturing capacity to meet coronavirus-fueled demand.