The one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic’s aggressive foothold in the United States is fast approaching. A year of cancelled plans, shuttered restaurant dining rooms, and missed celebrations with friends; of postponed weddings, remote schooling, and working from home.
On this day in 2020, none of us knew what we were in store for, but we could tell that this was not like SARS or Ebola — illnesses covered at length in the media, but with little impact on our day-to-day lives.
I first knew that this was serious when SXSW was cancelled just a week before it was due to begin. We had many more questions about the virus back then than we had answers, so we didn’t know if it was a necessary precaution or an overreaction. And while it was a difficult decision to make, we now know that it was absolutely the right one.
We’ve all learned a lot since then — about the virus, about each other, and about ourselves. Since I’m feeling a bit introspective today, I’m sharing six lessons that I’ve learned over the past year on the rona-coaster.
1. Our infrastructure is much more fragile than it appears.
In the first scary weeks after businesses shut down and offices sent their employees home, we encountered something that many of us had never seen before — empty shelves.
Going to the grocery store during that time was alarming. We hadn’t yet grown accustomed to the sight of our neighbors in masks. Tape on the floor encouraged us to stay a minimum of 6’ apart. Food staples like rice, beans, and chicken had disappeared. Toilet paper and cleaning products were nowhere to be found. And stores had to put strict limits on purchase quantities to prevent hoarding.
I came home from my first COVID visit to the store in tears — and I’m not usually that emotional. The empty shelves were a disturbing reminder that our system of specialization means that if there’s no food at the store, most of us won’t eat. I’m a copywriter and my husband works in procurement. We don’t have a vegetable garden or chickens out back laying eggs. We rely on the intricate network of farmers, distributors, and retailers to provide access to our food. And when that chain fails…
This lesson was reiterated just a few weeks ago in the terrible winter storm that we experienced here in Texas. Apparently, our energy and water infrastructure is only a few days of single-digit temperatures away from collapse. Surprise!
We were lucky. We lost running water for four days, but the heat stayed on. Around the city, others lost power for days, with temperatures in their homes dropping to the 40s and below. Pipes burst, flooding houses and apartments in freezing temperatures. Entire apartment complexes will have to be gutted and rebuilt.
What are we supposed to do with this lesson? I’m not sure. Do we need to plan for more failures of the infrastructure that we rely on? In the wake of the Vietnam War, my parents’ generation lost faith in politicians. It seems that my generation may lose faith in the ability of our basic utilities to support us.
Ok, that was really depressing. Sorry. On a lighter note…
2. I hate skinny jeans.
Jokes abound about the daily switch from “nighttime pajamas” to “daytime pajamas.” We’ve explored “Zoom casual” fashion — a business appropriate top paired with ratty sweatpants on the bottom, safe from the webcam’s gaze. Some brave souls even forego pants altogether during their online meetings…although that doesn’t always work out well.
I’ve worked from home for the past two years. So I had already solidly transitioned into a “work uniform” of comfy pants in winter and loose jersey knit dresses in the summer. But whenever I was headed out to a restaurant or happy hour with friends, skinny jeans were still pretty standard.
I’ve put on skinny jeans only a few times over the past year, and it’s a thoroughly unpleasant experience. They pinch, they pull, they feel entirely too restrictive. I wore them because they were what I had. But when it’s time to emerge from my chrysalis as a slightly squishy butterfly, I will be replacing all of my skinny jeans with relaxed, boyfriend-style jeans.
There’s no going back to the tyranny of uncomfortable pants.
3. Apparently, health crises are political.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to get nasty and partisan.
But before COVID, I didn’t realize how political a global health crisis would be. In my mind, doctors and scientists would study the illness and make recommendations, and then the rest of us would follow suit to try to keep the disease at bay.
Very naive of me, I now realize.
Religion, reproduction, gun control, human rights — all of these issues have been turned into political weapons by leadership on both sides. COVID-19 is no different. Wearing a mask became a political statement, instead of a safety measure.
It’s been difficult to watch. Over 500,000 Americans have died, and politicians have used the crisis to hurl insults and vitriol at their opponents. Had leadership been more interested in saving lives than scoring political points, maybe some of those 500,000 innocent people would still be with us. That’s a lesson with a terribly high cost. And unfortunately, I don’t know if the people in power have learned it.
4. I really like my husband.
I mean, I already knew this. That’s why I married him.
But we’ve been inside a 1,000 square foot house together all day, every day, for a year. And we still like each other.
5. Working too much is really easy when you don’t have anywhere to go.
Overworking is always easy to do when you work from home. But pre-COVID, I had some social obligations that still put an end to my workday. I’d meet up with friends now and then, and go to my orchestra rehearsal every Wednesday.
When all that came to an end, it became easier than ever to let the work day streeeeetch into the evening. Work-life balance? What’s that?
Many of us have had to reassess the way we end our days. Do you stop at a certain time, or just keep plugging away through the evening? Is it easier or harder to log off for the day when there’s no one watching? In our “play hard, work harder” culture, it can be a serious struggle to give ourselves permission to not work, even when we’re ill, exhausted, or dealing with some major worldwide trauma.
So how do we deal with it?
Still working on that. But the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?
6. The hospitality industry is both fragile and resilient.
While this is a tragedy for these small business owners and their employees, it’s also a minor miracle that the numbers aren’t worse. Dining rooms have been closed or at reduced capacity for a year, and restaurants have turned to creative solutions to continue serving food while keeping people safe.
Curbside pickup has seen a massive increase in popularity as customers grow tired of cooking at home. Some restaurants added take home meal kits as a new revenue stream. And outdoor dining went from a “nice to have” to a “must have” amenity.
Hotels are facing similar challenges, with revenue dropping by 50% in 2020. And still, they’re hanging on. A shift from business travel to domestic leisure travel has helped some hotels to keep rooms occupied, while giving people an escape from their homes. Others sold wine curbside from their hotel bars, or hosted outdoor events on their property. And some turned guest rooms into flexible work spaces, providing a private place to be productive away from the distractions of home.
The industry has been battered and bruised, but it’s not down.
We all know that the COVID situation isn’t over. Until vaccines are available, we’ll be sitting tight in our bubble of two (plus dog) and avoiding unnecessary exposure.
But when we’re able to get up close and personal with people again, watch out. I’m gonna become a hugging machine. Old friends, new friends, complete strangers — prepare for the vice-like grip of my squeezes.