We need a new normal after COVID-19

There’s a certain clarity that develops in a crisis.

Old rules – that seemed so important to protecting the public order, to good business practices, to the rules of commerce – all of a sudden get tossed out and we adapt to new ways of doing things for the times.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have changed the way we live our lives and conduct business.

When we move past this crisis, and we will move past it, I hope that there is a new normal that underscores the way we put the pieces back together.

A woman walks by an encouraging sign hung in a restaurant window in Portland on Monday. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

On some of the biggest issues of the day, such as access to health care and paying people a living wage, we should mark the days before COVID-19 and after.

Health care shouldn’t be tied to a person’s job. When millions of people lose their jobs – all of a sudden and through no fault of their own as part of a public health catastrophe – they shouldn’t also lose their health insurance.

There’s more than one way to solve this problem. It doesn’t have to be Medicare for All, for example. But with some projections anticipating nearly one in three Americans losing their jobs, we can’t tolerate a system that also takes away their health care.

Similarly, we must have robust and secure paid time off requirements and family and medical leave. Maine has led the way on paid time off, but it’s clear that we have to build a social safety net that better takes care of families.

As a reaction to COVID-19 and the lockdowns that have been required to combat its spread, we’ve seen temporary enhancements of these policies. They need to stay and be normalized.

Even in a state of small businesses, the alternatives – leaving workers on their own in a crisis – just doesn’t work.

Those are big changes that we must recognize.

But there are also a lot of other changes forced by COVID-19 that should survive.

Business travel has been eliminated, replaced with video conference calls. Maybe post-COVID we don’t stay at zero. But when we consider the time, money and environmental impact, less non-essential travel makes a lot of sense.

Likewise, our forced experience with remote work suggests that a whole lot of companies can reduce their footprints, saving dollars and reducing environmental impact. That doesn’t mean a 100% remote workforce – I for one would go absolutely nuts – but it does mean that we have a chance to standardize the idea of remote work to better meet the needs of workers and their families.

Restaurant and other service industries are struggling to survive. And once we clear this immediate crisis, we’re likely to see the lingering effects. You can expect requirements that there’s more distance between tables and fewer seats at the bar, adding ongoing pressure to an industry that has been hit hard.

We can’t go back and unwind the changes. Beer, grocery and other retailers will likely need to keep delivery as an option. I actually like grocery and beer shopping, but we should re-regulate those consumers options that have been a lifeline during this crisis.

And when it comes to our elections, it’s clear that the current crisis has demonstrated the need to make it easier to vote, particularly by mail.

One final point. What’s happening right now is hard. It’s a national trauma. And every single one of us – in different ways, unique to our own situations – is struggling.

There’s a blog post making the rounds on the website Medium titled, “Parents Are Not OK.”

It talks about the struggles – the feelings of failure and inadequacy – that many families are dealing with as they try to work, provide structure and schooling for their kids, and carry on with life that hasn’t seemed to slow down despite the lockdown.

And that’s for the people who have the privilege – like I do – of being able to work from home and to still have a job. There are a lot of folks who are trying to manage a job that puts them at risk or no job at all.

I wrote three-quarters of this column as if I’m just talking about public policy as it relates to recovery from a pandemic. That’s really pretty absurd if you think about it.

Quoting my boss, Joan Fortin, CEO of Bernstein Shur, I’d close with this: “For now, what I want to do is tell you that I see you, I hear you and I feel for you. … In every single interaction we share with each other, please try to remember that we are all struggling on some level right now and try to be gentle.”

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.