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The New Normal Part 1: Society

By: John Norris

What is the New Normal?

What will the “new normal” be when we finally ‘get past’ COVID19? How will we live our lives and conduct business? I get this inquiry several times a day, if not more, and I wonder myself: how have the events of the several months changed us? Obviously, everyone will answer the question differently.

I have determined my family spent too much money eating out at restaurants before the recent crisis. To be sure, our grocery bill is higher than it was previously, but we have been saving money on food, in aggregate and in a meaningful way. Once the economy fully reopens, I don’t know if we will go back to our old eating habits. I would like to think we won’t, but imagine this might depend on which restaurants fully reopen. As I type, this is decidedly uncertain.

Perhaps interestingly, I have been watching significantly less television. Conservatively, I would estimate I have cut my viewing habit(s) by half, if not greater. Instead, I have been reading more than I have in years. When I finish one book, I pick up another. When I get close to finishing that one, I get on Amazon Prime and order a couple more. Not surprisingly, I am finding my imagination slowing returning, after wandering in the wilderness for who knows how long.

Finally, though not really, I have found I don’t really miss professional sports. Since I was a child, I have loved reading baseball box scores, following certain players, and hoping the Orioles might surprise everyone ‘this’ season. As Meatloaf sang years ago: “two out of three ain’t bad.” However, here we are in May, and I hadn’t thought about baseball very much, let alone missed it. The NBA? I have been a fair-weather fan, at best, since Tim Duncan retired. As such, it has been so much ‘out of sight out of mind,’ and I have never cared about the NHL. It is too early to tell how I feel about the NFL, but I imagine I might perk up a little if the powers that be cancel the NCAA football season. We shall see.

While those are just a few things I have noticed about myself, I suspect everyone has had epiphanies of their own. So, here are a few of our predictions on what some aspects of our day to day lives might look like moving forward.

Prior to COVID19, it was unusual to see someone in public wearing a mask over their nose and mouth. Moving forward, more people will use some type of facial covering. This will be especially true when running errands, especially going to the grocery. In fact, some establishments will require them. It won’t be everyone, every store, or all the time. It will be just enough to make face masks part of the new normal.

Shaking hands will be the exception rather than the norm for the foreseeable future. Casual, social hugging will also decline with the exception of close personal relationships. In essence, people will significantly minimize their physical contact with new and/or casual acquaintances. Over time, it is conceivable the Asian custom of bowing will become more commonplace in the remainder of the world.

After staring into the abyss, the live theater industry will undergo a serious transformation. Individual companies and theaters will increasingly focus on live-streaming their productions. This will be available either pay per view or through a season subscription, if applicable. Frankly, this is a good thing, as it has the potential to significantly widen live theater’s proverbial net. While fewer people might be in the theater seats, more people will actually be watching.

Conversely, movie theater chains will face increased pressure as the production studios increasingly bypass the ‘middleman’ by offering numerous subscription services. Customers will be able to pay monthly, by genre, or by individual films. Netflix has basically already shown the industry how to do it. The COVID19 pandemic will simply force the traditional studios to get with the program.

The sports industry will also undergo significant change. While passionate fans will continue to attend events, casual fan attendance will drop, particularly in enclosed arenas or stadiums. Depending on the team, city, and sport, some of these declines could be significant.

Due to the relative lack of current star power, the NHL and MLB might be at risk for a meaningful erosion in overall interest, especially when compared to the NBA or NFL. This could lead to future declines in corporate sales, which prop up attendance figures across all professional sports. ‘Small’ market teams are especially at risk of irrelevance, and these leagues will struggle with underperforming franchises moving forward. As a result, player contracts and franchise values will get smaller. While not quite a death knell for professional hockey and baseball, the two will emerge from COVID19 considerably weaker than the NBA and NFL.

College sports will also suffer, in aggregate. While there won’t be a significant drop in interest for major programs in the major sports, other college teams will struggle with both attendance and overall interest. As a result, many colleges will dramatically cut their athletic budgets and the number of teams they field. While most programs were losing money previously, they will become financially untenable in the future. After all, a small drop in revenue from basketball and football results in big cuts in spending elsewhere.

People will be excited when their favorite restaurants reopen, if they reopen. However, ‘stuck in the middle’ restaurants and chains, those which don’t compete effectively on either price or product, will see a sharp drop in demand. Traditional so-called ‘fern bars’ will be the hardest hit, particularly in markets where there are multiple, arguably better, options. This was a trend prior to COVID19, but it will significantly accelerate moving forward.

After having to do so during the lock downs, people will continue to cook more at home. While eating out is convenient, tasty, and fun, families will have noticed the savings in their budget from preparing their own meals. Interestingly, one of the unintentional, though welcome, outcomes of this crisis will be a slowing in the growth rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet related illnesses in the US.

The decline in the Chinese restaurant industry will continue, but for different reasons. Because their hard work ensured greater opportunities for their children (coupled with declining Chinese immigration), 1st generation Chinese-Americans won’t have anyone to take over their restaurants. It will just seem to be suspiciously coincidental with COVID19.

As a result of this decline, ‘South Asian’ and/or Pan-Asian restaurants will continue to adjust their cuisine to American tastes and proliferate. My grandchildren will probably be more comfortable with dishes like chicken tikka masala, pho, larb, and samosas than with kung pao chicken, hot & sour soup, egg rolls, and lo mein.

The fast food industry will redesign floorplans and adopt technology to ensure the next public health scare doesn’t impact their business like this one did. This bodes poorly for cashiers and other front of the house personnel, as those jobs start to disappear from the economy. Fast food will become truly fast food. Customers will order and pay by phone, and pick up their meals in an automat-esque type manner. Overall, fast food chains will be leaner and meaner.

As a result, although it isn’t obvious at first, immigration from Latin America will eventually slow as more native-born Americans are forced into, and increasingly accept, traditional unskilled and semi-skilled work due to the restructuring of the US economy. This will likely further increase already wide inequalities in both wealth and income.

Similar trends will develop throughout the remainder of the world. This will lead to a decrease in global migration and an increase in some form of nationalism. As a result, there will be a pronounced shift in public opinion for countries to be more self-sufficient, in all definitions of the term. Obviously, the trend towards greater globalization will suffer a setback.

Already on its last leg, with a few exceptions, the generic, suburban, enclosed shopping mall becomes a relic of history. Phrases like food court will fade from usage because there won’t be many, if any, food courts remaining in the United States.

As a result of the decline in enclosed malls and consumer behavior, anchor retail chains will come under attack. Consumers should expect mass store closings and even the liquidation of some long-standing US retailers. The remaining anchor store chains will become more specialized, and will collude with one another to ensure they aren’t carrying the same products at the same price points in the same locations. It is easy to envision the remaining chains dividing up the country, geographically, in sort of a ‘back to the future’ move.

The travel and airline industries will have to adjust to a lower ‘new normal’ for the foreseeable future. People will limit their air travel due to fears of another contagion. As a result, consumers will determine their travel plans based on the length of the drive time to the location. Overseas travel and tourist dependent states and cities (like California, Florida, and New York City) will suffer the most, even if the beaches may seem full.

In another blow to the airline and travel industries, companies will cut their travel expenses by making greater use of apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams for meetings, both internal and external. Even a 10% reduction in airline travel at the corporate level due to more efficient use of communications technology will have a huge impact on airlines and hotels.

Numerous cities and counties will declare bankruptcy over the next 12-18 months due to severe shortfalls in revenue from the COVID19 pandemic related economic shutdowns. This will impact public jobs, services, education systems, and force some municipal consolidations for greater efficiencies. Close to home, a consolidation of many west Jefferson County municipalities with the City of Birmingham will become a topic of discussion, if not a foregone conclusion.

As the economy struggles to recover and unemployment remains stubbornly elevated, political correctness will take a back seat for a while. Frankly, people will be preoccupied with their own well-being and livelihoods, as opposed to being worried about offending people.

Over the last several decades, US society has become increasingly less formal, including corporate America. What was once considered ‘Business Professional’ will officially become a thing of the past. After finding out during the COVID19 pandemic workers are just as productive in everyday casual attire, work out clothing and in some cases pajamas, employers will relax the rules on appropriate office wear. As more businesses adapt to the remote work environment, we will more than likely see the end of ‘Business Professional’ and ‘Business Casual’ will evolve into ‘Casual Friday’ attire. Formal business suits will only be necessary for high level gatherings, funerals, and court appearances, and ties will increasingly become even more of a rarity. For women, flats will give high heels a run for their money and jeans will be acceptable in most office environments during the week. The focus will be more on cleanliness and neatness, as opposed to a predetermined style of clothing.

Finally, arguably bucking the trend, there likely won’t be a significant permanent drop in attendance at faith-based institutions, outside of preexisting trends. In fact, churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues could actually see an increase in attendance moving forward. In relatively stark contrast to other areas of life, these circumstances could very easily lead to an increase in pent-up demand for faith.

While no one knows with complete certainty what the future will hold, these are just a few of the changes to society and societal behavior which we feel could take place, or will accelerate, because of the COVID19 pandemic.

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Created By
Sara McPherson
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Credits:

Created with images by DifferR - "Blurred photo of food exhibition fair montage with wood table top for background." • jennifer - "The New Normal - PPE - Face Mask"