Several months and an entire lifetime ago, I had a very minor problem—a friend of mine was getting married in Seattle the same weekend that my college was hosting my 10-year reunion in New Hampshire. Which would I choose? Was it at all possible, with the wonders of flight, to somehow … attend both? I delayed making a decision until the pandemic happened, which allowed me to delay my decision even longer until, eventually, my friends announced they had postponed their wedding for a year, and my college announced they were postponing graduation and all reunions as well. The exact date of the reunion has yet to be confirmed, but it feels at least possible that I will have to make the same exact decision, between the wedding or the reunion, next year.
Or will I? As states slowly experiment with lifting stay-at-home orders, we are starting to see what “going back to normal” might actually mean. And even as we consume news stories that explain how various industries will be forever changed by this pandemic, we can’t help but try to peer into the future, awaiting the return of the life we used to have. Many students who can’t walk at their graduations this May have been told they’ll get their chance next May. My friends realize they can’t have their weddings in June and September of this year, but June or September of next year? That will have to be possible, right? How could it not be?
But as I watch the first stages of our slow national reopening, I keep wondering: How could it be? With each state that lifts stay-at-home orders, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the return to normalcy is going to take longer than we want it to, and that the normal we long to return to simply won’t exist anymore. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote, people did not start staying home once the restaurants closed and the stay-at-home orders had been issued; they started staying home once they realized that a deadly virus was circulating, and that doing so would help them avoid it. The early data from various states confirms what we already knew: Most Americans are more interested in caution than in their ability to get a haircut. The question we are facing right now is not whether we are allowed, but whether we are willing.
One of the things this pandemic has revealed for many of us is how restorative and precious real-life interactions are. And that’s just why they are going to be so difficult to re-create in our current circumstances. One piece I keep thinking about is a story my colleague Aaron Mak wrote about how salons might reopen while minimizing risk. Mak talked to people who explained how to trim sideburns around a face mask, and how salons will abandon their magazine-filled waiting rooms in favor of having customers wait in their cars. All reasonable steps to help ensure everyone’s safety. But as one of his sources noted, a haircut is not just a utilitarian endeavor. Rather, it “has always been considered sort of a luxury service.” In other words, getting a haircut is supposed to feel good. People might return because the payoff of not having an accidental quarantine mullet is worth it, but the experience of the salon has been transformed into a joylessly practical exercise, like going to a restaurant to consume Soylent in silence.
As we consider and weigh the idea of reopening, one of the things we have to keep in mind is how the precautions the virus requires will rob experiences of what made them worthwhile (and worth paying for) in the first place. There’s an impulse to figure out how we can go back to our pre-pandemic life, with post-pandemic precautions. But just as we’ve realized that attempting to re-create our old lives in virtual space is often exhausting and not worth it, we are on the cusp of realizing that reopening doesn’t merely mean going back to our former lives, plus masks.
Instead, everything will require its own unique equation. How risky is this? How much do I need it? How possible is it to replicate the experience with less risk? Those are the kinds of questions we are all about to get much more used to asking ourselves as we begin the slow process of figuring out what is next. I know there was never going to be an on switch for starting things again, but I think for a while I imagined that we’d basically be on a slow on-ramp—first the small businesses in my town would figure out a way to reopen, and eventually offices and trains and planes and trips to cities would come back, too. But I am worried that my desire for things to go back to normal (which is enormous) has blinded me to the reality that things cannot go back to normal—not until there is a vaccine, and the timeline for that is longer than we want to admit to ourselves.
In the meantime, things that can stay closed will. Goldman Sachs, like most banks and many places, is doing all of its summer internships online. The California State University system just announced that its campuses will continue to be closed this fall. Google will have most of its employees continue to work from home through 2021, and Facebook has canceled all of its large, in-person events through June 2021. If it seems prudent to continue keeping these things closed now, what could possibly change to force that calculation to land on “open it,” except a vaccine? Maybe we will become much better at all the things we have so far failed at—testing, isolating sick people, tracing their contacts to better contain outbreaks. It’s possible. But it doesn’t feel likely, and more importantly, I’m still not sure that even very good contact tracing will suddenly mean that having offices reopen will be worth the risk. Some very big companies don’t seem to think so, either.
As I try to envision what the next year will look like, my world simply feels smaller. I want to figure out how to see my family, particularly my niece, who is 3, and my grandmother, who is 85, because time moves differently for them. We are going to learn a new hierarchy of needs, with the reopenings of day cares and schools taking precedence over office buildings, when those office buildings house workers who can do their jobs without being there. We will find ourselves asking again and again: How important is this? Is there any other way to do it? What is the best way to minimize the risk?
These questions are so hard when it comes to a wedding. The thing that makes a wedding glorious is also the thing that makes it feel unimaginable right now: the gathering of all of the people who are important to your life, imported from far-flung places, into one room, to celebrate love. Risk increases exponentially as numbers go up, particularly when travel requires an airplane, which entails contact with many other people. If you think about a wedding like a haircut, it’s clear that the utilitarian version is getting married alone, which is what many people have been doing.
I don’t begrudge my friends’ desire to push their weddings back by just a year, and the willingness to reschedule once suggests a willingness to reschedule again. Maybe things will end up better than I think. There is at least the possibility that we will have a more competent federal government than we have now, and that could help. Maybe I am the one being the scrooge. But it’s still hard not to feel the futility in our collective wish that the lives we miss so much can simply be postponed. We’re not on a slow on-ramp. We’re in a bizarre scatter plot, where some things might return to normal, but others will simply sit, stalled, until we have a vaccine.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to What Next.