The New Normal

Ontario is making some very small moves to “open up” the economy again, because we are seeing consistent downward trends in the number of new cases & deaths. That’s great, and I’m super happy about the finally declining numbers (only several weeks later than I predicted), but what’s the new normal actually going to be LIKE?

Ontario is making some very small moves to “open up” the economy again, because we are seeing consistent downward trends in the number of new cases & deaths (see chart right, from my tracking spreadsheet). That’s great, and I’m super happy about the finally declining numbers (only several weeks later than I predicted), but what’s the new normal actually going to be LIKE?

I guess first, a quick roundup of what we actually accomplished with our very expensive lockdown:

  • Kept number of cases low enough that health care system was not overwhelmed. This alone is absolutely massive in importance – places which failed at this saw case fatality rate double (from lack of treatment), plus of course, just a LOT more death due to higher case numbers… we could easily have been there ourselves, remember, just two doublings would have put us over capacity, and two doublings is less than a week of pre-lockdown normal behavior…
  • Got people to take it seriously. You need to do something major to even get the attention of some significant percentage of the population (who, rightly, are busy minding their own business/family/etc). Everybody learned how to social distance, and why.  Everyone started washing their hands. Everyone changed their routines to isolate themselves and their families.
  • Bought time to get enough personal protective equipment to equip not just front-line medical staff, but also front-line service personnel in general, e.g. at my local supermarket. Even at the beginning of April, many of those hard working people STILL had nothing, whereas now, they all have masks and face shields.  Even if they choose not to wear them sometimes, that’s a lot better situation that before the lockdown!
  • Also bought time for treatments to advance. Doctors have better ideas now on what works for treatments, and what doesn’t. Early hopes for repurposed drugs (*cough* hydroxychloroquine *cough*) seem to have mostly not panned out, but best practices are emerging. Related, several vaccine candidates are also now in (stage 1) trials, which is awesome. Expect most to fail, that’s a reality for vaccine development…
  • Bought time for all business, etc to regroup and think through their strategy going forward. For instance, there is a big movement now in Toronto for restaurants to be allowed to open up patios on streets and sidewalks that wouldn’t commonly be used, so that there can be more ROOM for spaced out seating. This kind of work is complicated, since the BIAs, the city, and the businesses around each other all need to coordinate. But I think it’s a good plan for what a summer that doesn’t destroy 50%+ of all restaurants (or 0.2% of all people) might actually look like. 
  • Bought time to staff up and train contact tracing teams.  As of 6 days ago, Toronto reportedly had 500 public health people doing that, which was still not enough to hit provincial targets of 90% of cases and contacts traced and contacted in one day, but it’s awesome! Imagine how few people there were doing that 2 months ago…

Coming out of the lockdown, and into the “new normal”, here’s some more thoughts:

  • I continue to think that we should all wear masks in any kind of situation where we have even the chance of exposure to strangers.  So basically, all indoor enclosed environments except your home, like grocery stores, like buses, like elevators, like offices, etc. I don’t understand why Ontario hasn’t ordered that yet, it looks like 75% of people are compliant already (even absent an order), so surely this is worth nailing down?
  • On a similar note, anybody with even the least bit of sickness / cold symptoms needs to stay home. This is a bit harsh for people with allergies, but it obviously makes a world of sense, and if we have to change employment law to make it OK for people to take more sick days, I think that’s a great change.
  • Contact tracing is key. What few infections DO continue to happen, we need to jump all over them to prevent them from turning into more. As Tory says, the last thing anybody wants is another wave and another lockdown.
  • To that end, I think large gatherings (>100?) are basically out either until as we have vaccine which everyone has taken (at least a year from now, likely more), OR we get some good evidence that with masks and other precautions, such events are not explosive disease vectors. And that kind of evidence isn’t impossible to gather, I can imagine a sort of “testing before and after” festival which is allowed to happen precisely in order to test this, with attendees staying in self-quarantine until the after test can be conducted (5 days of incubation time enough?) and results come in.  Heck I’d volunteer to participate in such an event, it’d be a welcome break from home-all-the-time-world… Anyway, expect to see sports and similar things basically focus on broadcast only – live crowds are OUT. Are those things financially sustainable broadcast only? Probably not, but maybe they can figure a new financial model out somehow?!?
  • On a similar front, I’ve seen quite a bit of action recently in
    conferences going fully virtual. Typically for a much smaller ticket price than
    we’re used to seeing – but as an organizer, I know that actually, venue
    and food are always the biggest costs, so if you can strike those, the
    price really can be a LOT lower. Whether these so-called “conferences”
    are actually any good is something I have no idea about, I’m actually
    tempted to try one out not so much because I am compelled to go by my
    interest in the subject (i.e. in normal times, I wouldn’t have gone),
    but because I want to see it in action, and the new lower price is a lot
    more attractive too.
  • Many things like restaurants and yoga studios/etc are going to figure out social-distanced and enhanced-cleanliness equivalents to their normal operation. And sure it “won’t be the same”, but it’ll be a LOT better than nothing, and perhaps with some real allowances by the city, and by customers, it’ll actually be something we can all do on a regular basis, to keep those businesses viable. I’d KILL for some Ethiopian food right about now, that’s for sure!
  • A lot more cars, bikes and scooters on the streets, and a lot less people on public transit. I know I have less than zero desire to get on a bus, or enter a subway station, even if they are not crowded, and I’m sure nearly everyone feels the same way. I expect we’ll see downtown Toronto become a traffic nightmare as we open back up – well, even MORE of one than usual, since it was already bad even before this. My housemate is getting into biking and even buying a skateboard. I’m dusting off my old electric scooter. We’re probably going to see a lot more automobile accidents later this year, after having seen less in the last few months. Hopefully all this will actually leave public transit so uncrowded enough for the people who HAVE to take it that it’s not a menace to public health…
  • and it’s various meetups, which is dear to my heart (since I basically run 4 of them!) just seems problematic to me.  I think IN GENERAL people will be allowed to socialize with friends without wearing masks (i.e. you’ll be able to hug your friend and have dinner/drinks together), but things like meetup, where nearly the entire idea is to meetup with strangers, that’s another level, and I don’t know if it’s wise, or frankly, if people would come out even if I posted an event in e.g. September, when we’re “fully unlocked” and in the new normal. We may just be in a world where all that kind of thing gets done virtually for a long long time.
  • As an interesting suggestion for how to make that a bit more workable, there needs to be a way to make contact tracing work even as you interact with strangers. So perhaps the organizer needs to collect contact details for all people who attend? I’ve heard this is being done at e.g. restaurants in Washington State, controversially. Obviously it doesn’t prevent meetups from being a crossing / breeding grounds, but it does mean that they are more controllable in the case of an actual positive test than they would be otherwise, and perhaps that makes them more allowable?  On a related note, I was also thinking that the gov requiring us each to carry around a little black notebook, where we note down the details of who we interact closely with each day, might be a pretty good idea in terms of how to speed up and make more through the contact tracing. Nobody need ever see it unless you get infected, so it basically amounts to a journal in 99% of cases. Even if 25% of the population did it, I can see it being pretty helpful, and I bet an announcement of it plus free distribution of materials (pads, small pencils) at e.g. library branches could get us to 25%…
  • International travel and borders are likely to remain basically zero’ed out for many more months. In fact, people are finally beginning to clue in that travel isn’t going to rebound any time soon.  Air tickets are going to be 2x to 3x their old prices, to compensate for extra spacing on the planes and decreased flight schedule (meaning, increased overhead). That kind of price increase is going to destroy demand, perhaps even more than the fear of traveling – the combo of those two AND the increased famailiary and acceptance of video conference call for business may leave the long-term need for flights at less than half of pre COVID-19 levels. Many of the “discount” airlines are going to go out of business before a recovery in travel can even begin. Boeing said some stuff along this line and then had to walk it back to avoid some customer backlash, but it’s the truth, and honestly Boeing itself may not survive – certainly their passenger aircraft division is going to bleed for a decade or more.
  • There are lots of people speculating about our geopolitical futures as well, but I’ll hold off on those for another post 🙂
  • I also feel like this post just sort of bounces along the obvious, and there are many many more things which we all need to work out locally. We’re in a weird world where we need to reinvent how we do EVERYTHING, and that level of uncertainty is a bit bewildering. We’re not all dealing well with it either. Maybe I also need a post about COVID-19 psychology and sociology?!?