Uncertainty about when and how the COVID-19 health and economic crises will end is nearly as distressful for many as the crises themselves.
As many laid off workers still await unemployment checks four weeks after applying, and local businesses grapple with the reality of reduced or completely eliminated revenue, we all wonder, “How long will this last? When will we get back to business as usual?”
Astorians deserve straight answers.
The reality is that things won’t return to normal until there is a vaccine approved and widely deployed, which most experts say will take 12 to 18 months. The challenge is to shift mindsets from waiting it out until things return to normal, to adapting to the “new normal.” What does the new normal look like?
The consensus favors a staggered economic reopening driven by data. Once infections have peaked, then steadily subsided for over 14 days (the maximum incubation period), limited reopenings, with restrictions on types of activities and physical distancing, will be considered. Determining factors will include the availability — now lacking — of testing to detect outbreaks, trained contact tracers, as well as adequate personal protective equipment and hospital surge capacity.
Resurgences of infections may trigger renewed restrictions in affected areas and businesses where physical distancing is difficult. Wild cards include finding and approving a therapeutic drug treatment. The availability of treatment would give confidence to further reopen and allow larger public gatherings despite the increased risk of infection.
Full economic activity with no restrictions on gatherings, however, is unlikely without a vaccine. Until then, beloved activities like July 4 fireworks, the Astoria Regatta, the Astoria Sunday Market, sports and festivals, and private gatherings may remain scaled down or canceled altogether.
Restaurants and taverns will resume inside service with reduced seating and other restrictions — it won’t be “business as usual.” Museums like my employer will likely have reduced admissions during our peak revenue months — or be forced to close again.
The rate and scale of economic recovery will be a function of 1) advances in our ability to monitor the virus’s spread; 2) hospital capacity; 3) continued federal and state assistance to the unemployed and affected businesses; 4) development of a therapeutic treatment; and 5) consumer confidence — our collective willingness to travel, go out and participate in normal activities again without undue fear of contracting COVID-19.
We are in the early stages of a protracted challenge with many variables that no one at the local, state or federal levels fully understands. Response efforts can fairly be compared to changing the tires on a moving car.
Not all businesses are closed, and not all employees laid off; the economic damage and suffering are not shared equally. For many, aid is not enough and has not come quickly enough, but given the enormity of the aid packages and numbers of unemployed, those employees charged with processing and distributing aid should be commended for their tireless, thankless work.
Local community organizations like Clatsop Economic Development Resources and the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as elected leaders, regularly press local needs on our state and federal elected representatives as they legislate aid packages, and aid is beginning to flow (though as of this writing the Paycheck Protection Program has just been fully depleted).
This crisis is evolving rapidly and we are all learning together. It will be a marathon, and we should prepare for the long haul, with a sober awareness of the implications of state revenue shortfalls measured in the billions over the coming few years.
Once we wrap our heads around the concept that it may be October 2021 before “business as usual” is possible, organizations and programs that are to survive and even do well in the interim will focus on innovation, collaboration and modifying business models to deliver what COVID-19 customers need and want, maintain customer loyalty and even throw in a little fun for fun-deprived Astorians.
Like our schools, which have quickly transitioned to remote learning, and medical providers to telehealth, many local restaurants and taverns and other businesses are already embracing adaptive behavior to continue operating. Unfortunately and realistically, though, adapting will be harder for some organizations than others, for a variety of structural reasons.
In the end, Astoria will survive COVID-19, and thrive once again. The long-term goal is that we are all still here to take part in Astoria’s post-COVID-19 rejuvenation, and that we don’t have to build a memorial wall to honor those who died during the pandemic.
In the meantime, we salute the many essential workers — public and private sector — keeping us fed, supplied, functioning and protected, all of the public who have thus far so successfully minimized the virus’s spread through the community, those who have generously given charitably and supported local businesses still open and the shuttered businesses and laid off workers who have borne the brunt of the economic distress thus far.