Preparing for a Return to “Normal”

To look back at my calendar this time a year ago is to relive another era.

I’d just returned from a three-day conference with peers from around the country. I had three dinner parties on tap, a full slate of lunch meetings, baseball games and scout meetings for the kids, a weekend in Athens my wife and I ultimately decided to skip.

Things made their way to the cliff’s edge one by one. A phone call to go over details with the speakers for a March 18 luncheon I was organizing wound up as a discussion of how and when we’d decide if we needed to cancel. A call to talk about how this thing called COVID-19 might affect fundraising for nonprofits like mine was hastily arranged. By the time Friday the 13th (coincidence?) arrived, we thought it’d be the last day the kids were in school for two weeks – excuse me, TWO WHOLE WEEKS, CAN YOU IMAGINE?!? – and a meeting we hosted at our office became the occasion for announcing we were going to work remotely for a little while, just to be super-duper, extra-safe.

I rehearse all of this now because it feels like the light has finally appeared at the end of the tunnel. Depending on where you live, it may already feel fairly normal. I spent a day this past week in Gainesville and, despite being one of the most heavily affected areas in the state not two months ago, most people seemed to be taking fewer precautions than I tend to see in Atlanta. When the local infection rate declines by more than 80% in a matter of weeks, that tends to happen.

So it feels like a good time to ask that question we’ve asked ourselves periodically over the past year: How “normal” will things ever be again?

Predictions have never been my strong suit – just check the politicians I favored over the years who never got elected, the championship banners for local teams that seemed within reach but never got hung, or the lottery numbers that didn’t buy me out of my day job. But let’s mull a couple of things that seem unlikely to revert to prior form.

First, masks appear to be here to stay. I remember thinking how odd it was to see the near-ubiquitous wearing of cloth masks among various Southeast Asian peoples after the 2002-04 outbreak of SARS. That was a mere epidemic, afflicting 8,096 and killing 774. Georgia alone at times has surpassed those numbers in a day or a matter of days, respectively.

That doesn’t mean people will be wearing them this summer, or next summer. But during cold and flu season, I expect we’ll see a noticeable number of people who choose to wear them. It will be interesting to see if there’s enough consumer demand for service-industry businesses to keep it up as well, at least for their employees.

Second, the days of fiscal restraint are gone for the foreseeable future. During the last recession, there was a backlash on the populist right to the bailouts and “stimulus” spending by both the Bush and, especially, Obama administrations. This go-around, we’ve seen populists on the right joining those on the left in calling for ever-larger stimulus checks. The politics that drove a modicum of fiscal restraint last time – in the form of sequestration and enforced budget cuts, even if spending never really fell back to pre-stimulus levels – appear to be dead.

But as the economist Herb Stein is credited with saying: Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Modern monetary theory, which glosses over some really key elements of the public borrowing process and isn’t likely to be proven correct that the U.S. can borrow basically as much as it wants, will be put to the test. Expect the ride to get bumpy.

Until time tells us about the accuracy of those two predictions, I’ll settle for having a calendar full of non-virtual meetings again.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation:

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