Leaders in government, business, education, medical care and other fields have called policy and procedural changes made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic “the new reality.”
Many people yearn for a return to the way things were just one year ago. But once the pandemic is gone, will life return to “the old reality”?
Experts in various sectors say no.
There will be a return to “normalcy” in terms of getting together with friends and relatives, dining in restaurants, going to movies, attending live theater and entering a store without waiting in line.
The vast majority of people will ditch the face masks, but those with chronic health conditions may continue to wear them now that they’ve become a common sight and more accepted in western culture.
But those who take the pulse of various sectors of society say some aspects of our lives have been changed forever by the response to the pandemic.
“I do think a lot of the ways we’ve learned to do business in the last 10 months are going to stick around, although there may be some moderation in those changes,” said Glenn Morris, president and chief executive officer of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“The plexiglass barriers are going to stay [in retail businesses and banks] because the investments have been made, so why not keep them?” he said.
Morris said it’s unlikely that office employees will have to go back to working every day in their offices.
“I think in the work style, certainly in our office, allowing flexibility in schedules and working at home will continue,” he said. “We’ve been on a schedule of being in the office two days and working at home three days, and I see no reason why that shouldn’t continue.”
Morris said some wineries may continue providing wine tasting by appointment because it’s easier to manage staffing and provides a way to maximize the customer experience.
Wineries that relied on customers buying wine in their tasting rooms for a major portion of their retail sales also had to shift more to online marketing and shipping their products to customers.
Some small businesses have increased their online presence, but that’s something more small businesses must do, Morris said.
“Amazon is not going away after the pandemic,” he noted. “One project [the Chamber is] ramping up for the new year is a program to help some of the smaller retailers get sharper and more effective at selling online.
“We’ll give them new skills, new processes to help some of those small-business owners figure that out.”
Governmental agencies, which traditionally are slower to change than private enterprise, in general adapted remarkably fast in order to continue providing public services while still meeting state-mandated restrictions.
Despite all its terrible impacts, the pandemic may have provided institutions with a window of opportunity.
“I think this is a really nice time to look at how we adapt,” said Gina DePinto, communications manager for Santa Barbara County.
But governments are not sure what procedural changes their organizations will retain after COVID-19 fades away, and, for the most part, it’s not something they are actively considering at this point.
“In general what the executive team is looking at is, as long as we’re in the purple or red tier, for us it will be status quo,” DePinto said, referring to the state’s color-coded tiers in California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. “Beyond that, once we’re in orange, or certainly the yellow, we’ll start looking at holding in-person board meetings.”
Most government officials believe the County Board of Supervisors, city councils, county and city planning commissions and committees will return to conducting their meetings in-person, although they also expect to continue offering public participation through phone calls and online meeting applications.
“We’re not going back to normal in 2021,” DePinto said, adding the pandemic isn’t going to just end one day and the next day government will revert to pre-COVID-19 status. Instead, it will be a long process completed in stages.
“We don’t want everyone coming back at one time,” she said of the county staff. “It’s going to be a slow roll.”
Even after operations revert to what might be considered normal, “We’ll still never look 100% the same,” DePinto said.
“We’ve shown we can be creative and work remotely,” she continued. “But there are lots of jobs, frankly, that can’t be done remotely. … There are also certainly places people just prefer that face-to-face interaction.”
Individual county departments have various pandemic-driven procedures they are considering as permanent options, and the staff has informally discussed alternatives, DePinto said.
It will likely be months before any decisions are made, she said, but flexible hours and working from home will probably continue to a certain extent, and the county also may use staggered schedules and have employees share offices on alternating days and times.
Yet there’s another reason for governments to keep new procedures in place or, at least, ready to re-implement quickly.
“I think everyone is thinking we will make it [back to normal] if we get through this COVID pandemic, but there’s another one coming,” DePinto predicted.
Physicians, nurses and aides working directly with patients in hospital, clinic and laboratory settings say procedures didn't change much in their response to COVID-19 because they’ve always taken steps to protect themselves and others from infectious diseases.
“We don’t anticipate any changes to our standard procedures once the pandemic is behind us,” said Dr. Scott Robertson, chief medical officer for Dignity Health Central Coast, which operates Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria and hospitals in Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo.
“In our hospitals, physician offices, urgent care centers, and outpatient centers, we continuously practice appropriate infection prevention measures, and we will continue to provide care to our community in a safe environment,” Robertson said.
Of course, those in administrative positions, volunteers and those working with patients not infected with contagious diseases have, like almost everyone else, worn face masks, practiced social distancing, frequently washed their hands and focused on sanitizing frequently touched surfaces.
No changes are envisioned there in the foreseeable future at Dignity Health and other medical facilities.
“Per [U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention] guidelines, the proper use of personal protective equipment was previously and will continue to be followed in our facilities,” Robertson said. “Masking will still be required as long as there is a national or local emergency related to respiratory disease.”
But it’s unclear whether support people will be required to continue using personal protective equipment, or PPEs, and follow COVID-19 procedures or whether that will be left to individual choice once the pandemic is declared at an end.
As with government agencies, such decisions by medical administrators and governing boards will likely wait until there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
But a few medical office personnel said even if it’s not mandated by their administrations, they will definitely wash their hands more frequently, sanitize more diligently and maintain a little more distance from patients and caregivers than before the pandemic. They were less certain about wearing masks.
Once the pandemic begins to wind down and everyone can stop, take a deep breath and consider the debris left behind by SARS-CoV-2, some policies that aren’t directly related to the viral pandemic will undoubtedly be reviewed and could be changed.
Morris cited vacation policies as an example of what businesses are already thinking about.
“A lot of people have been unable to take their vacations because of restrictions,” he said. “But some companies have a ‘use it or lose it’ policy; you don’t accumulate hours or carry them over. Companies will be looking at how to deal with things like that — do you allow it or not?”
At the government level, future changes may involve hardware and applications for those working from home as well as human resources policies.
For example, DePinto said social services workers involved in determining client eligibility work outside the office but aren’t issued county-provided cell phones.
So the staff is currently evaluating a system that will allow them to make calls through their computers.
It’s a continuation of the need to adapt to changing conditions as well as the county’s Renew ’22 initiative to look at how government does business, see if there are better ways and then implement them.
“I think we’re flexible and want to be innovative and use technology,” DePinto said.
But she pointed out some people are not comfortable using technology. They may lack familiarity with the equipment, programs and methods involved, or they may just need that human connection such systems eliminate or diffuse.
That means it will be a balancing act to provide public services in the most efficient, cost-effective and safe manner without some citizens feeling they’ve been pushed out of the loop.
Robertson said the medical community is up to the task of adapting to changing conditions as they arise, including the next pandemic that scientists say is inevitable.
When the pandemic hit, the staff, physicians and other employees gathered immediately to create surge plans, secure adequate personal protective equipment and put procedures in place to care for COVID-19 patients as well as other patients, he said.
“By experiencing the pandemic, we are confident knowing that we are nimble and can adapt to change and circumstances collectively,” Robertson said. “We feel prepared and ready for any future health care crises that may face our community.”
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