Finding the new normal

As the world tentatively crawls back to something vaguely resembling normal, many are asking:  What does ‘normal’ even look like anymore?

What will it be like to walk back into the office?  To travel by plane? Or just go out to a restaurant? 

“If you know anything about Americans, we do not like rules,” said Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, an editor with Mpls.-St. Paul Magazine and a long time food critic.  

“People come up to me, especially in the restaurant industry and say, ‘What’s next? What’s coming?’” she said. “And the only authentic thing you can say is that the unknowns are all we know.”

But there are hints.  

Professor Katherine Baicker and her team at the University of Chicago looked at cell phone data to track patterns in personal space at retail stores, gyms, and fast food chains. 

The researchers were looking for the kind of environments, and even particular stores, that could put people at greater risk of catching the coronavirus.  

No surprise: crowded, or fairly close environments, where you spend a longer period of time.

Fast food chains can be crowded, for example, but they are generally less of a risk than restaurants where people tend to stay longer.

The researchers found nail salons are some of the riskiest places, but far more people could spread the virus at gyms and shopping malls.  

“I do think this disease is going to be with us for a long time, the ramifications will be around for even longer, and it is going to change the way we do a lot of different things,” said Baicker.

The key for many retailers may be in creating ‘frictionless environments’ that reduce contact with customers.  

Best Buy and Starbucks are two retailers using their popular pay apps and curb side pick-up to reduce contact with customers. 

For Bill Baxley of the design firm Genser, the virus is a human design challenge.  

The Managing Director for the Minneapolis office said people will ask: What is the airflow around me like? How long am I going to be here? What are the things I’m going to touch or not touch?

In the workplace, he proposes the concept of the ‘Officile,’ a cross between the open office plan and a cubicle.  

There are barriers with windows to allow for conversations, as well as spaces to collaborate from a safe distance.

There’s even an office mudroom to wash your hands.

“It isn’t a sterilization chamber but something that makes people feel safe,” Baxley said.

Maybe not sterilized, but how about scanned? 

A start-up company, Venue Screen, says it has a thermal imaging scanner that can detect people with a fever, capable of scanning up to 16 people a second.  

“It is a new protocol, a new way of living,” said former Sun Country CEO Zarir Erani, one of the investors behind the company. 

Erani says the $20,000 system could be installed at entrances to shopping malls, sporting events, or concerts.  

All potential super spreader events that can lead to transmission among different social groups. 

“I can kind of see this being more the way things are as we go forward, just like the TSA has been around for 20 years who would have thought right?  It just becomes part of our life,” said Erani. 

For aviation, the virus could bring even bigger changes than 9/11. 

Planes and airports were never designed for social distancing.  After decades of packing us in like sardines, we suddenly want more than leg room.  

“In some ways a plane not so different than any other room full of people. Your greatest risk involves the person right next to you,” said Seth Kaplan, an airlines expert based in D.C. 

Kaplan said it’s likely we will see people wearing masks on planes long after the virus has passed.

And while we could see lower fares to lure back passengers, long term, the industry may contract, with higher fares, and fewer routes. 

“Right now you can block middle seats, you can do all sorts of things, because not many people are flying. Let’s see what they do in the longer term when it means turning away business,” said Kaplan.