Will the pandemic produce a new American normal?

Brian Cox
Legal News, Editor

In the wake of 9/11, what constituted normal life in America changed. A “new normal” was established. It became normal to take our shoes off to pass through airport security. American military involvement in Afghanistan became constant, turning the conflict into the longest running war in U.S. history. Americans became accustomed to the presence and policies of the new Department of Homeland Security. Ethical and constitutional questions surrounding the use and abuse of “big surveillance” entered the national discussion to stay. Iconic images of the attack became implanted in the cultural psyche and new terms such as “War on Terror” and “Never Forget” were impressed into the common language.

Will the 2020 coronavirus pandemic act as a similar fulcrum in American history? Will there be life before the outbreak and life after the outbreak in the same way there is the America before 9/11 and the America that came after?

The emergence of a “new normal” is feasible considering the extent of social and economic disruption caused by the virus’s spread in the past few weeks and becomes increasingly likely the longer the disruption lasts.

Already the language is adapting as once-unfamiliar phrases such as “social distancing,” “flatten the curve” and “hunker down” become part of everyday parlance and social media posts.

More significant than any new catchphrases, however, may be enduring changes to the country’s economic landscape.

With state governments, including Michigan, ordering the closure of bars, restaurants, casinos, theaters and other businesses, the economic ramifications promise to be profound. It is not difficult to imagine many American downtowns carrying lasting scars from the outbreak and the resulting recession in the form of empty storefronts left by small businesses that could not recover from the economic haymaker. The disappearance of favorite restaurants and bars could mark the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic eras in cities large and small across the country.

The closure of cinemas could mark a final fatal wound to an industry already under assault from digital competitors such as Netflix and Amazon. When Universal Pictures announced this week that in response to the pandemic it would make its current and upcoming films available for on-demand rental, it became the first major studio to turn directly to home viewing, breaking the seal on Hollywood’s traditional theatrical window, which allowed theaters exclusive access to newly released films for 90 days. If you wanted to see a film while it was still fresh, you had to catch it in the theater. But if theaters remain closed for too long, other studios may follow Universal Pictures’ example and the American public may grow accustomed to viewing new releases in the comfort of their homes to the point that when theaters return, they may find moviegoers have evolved into movie-stay-at-homers.

Few workers are likely to feel the spear point of the economic turmoil more than restaurant wait staff, bartenders and others who rely on tips and whose work has suddenly evaporated with government ordered closures. Some businesses have launched GoFundMe campaigns targeted at loyal customers to help provide their staff financial assistance during the shutdown and both federal and state governments have promised some form of relief, but it will certainly prove insufficient to keep these workers from struggling under distressed budgets. It seems within reason then that a sharp backlash to the unreliability of the tip economy could rise in full force later this year when the virus has largely — hopefully — run its course. The tip economy has been under challenge for several years, but efforts to erase it have failed to gain traction. Perhaps the pandemic’s exposure of service workers’ economic vulnerability will result in tipping becoming a ritual of the past.

A vast number of companies are asking their employees to work from home during the pandemic, if possible. As those employees over the coming weeks and months settle into working from home and become familiar with the technology of telecommuting, the arrangement may take hold. Companies may find it advantageous to their productivity and employees may discover it compatible with their work-life balance goals. The traditional American office of cubicles — and the morning rush hour — may never be the same. Of course, it is just as likely that after months of working from home, employees will flock back to their offices desperate for face-to-face human interaction. It may take more than a pandemic to replace the good old office water cooler.

Lastly, is it possible that as a result of a medical care system potentially overwhelmed by the coronavirus that Americans will force their politicians to finally address the country’s health care crisis and take steps to reinforce the U.S. welfare state? Could the pandemic prove a tipping point for real fundamental change in the health care of our citizens? That is difficult to say because Americans have often shown themselves to have short memories, but perhaps that also will change in the post-pandemic era.


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