New normal?

The other morning I was in my local supermarket (during the 7:00 AM “senior’s hour”) and I was chatting ~ at a safe distance ~ with one of the managers. I remarked on the rather large number of employees packing shopping baskets (three or four large green baskets in one large shopping cart) for others. “I think it will be the ‘new normal,’” the front-line manager said. “People like having their shopping done for them and then delivered,” she said. “We now accept orders at night for delivery the next day,” she explained, “and people like that and are willing to pay for the service.” People were, she told me, even happy to have employees pick our meat and fresh greens for them. I suggested that I might use that service when winter comes and I don’t feel like walking to the store on icy mornings. This is not to say that online grocery shopping is 100% successful, it’s not. But many people seem willing to change their habits.

She also told me that people also seemed less unwilling to use self-checkout machines. I wondered if she foresaw any loss of employment when things return to something akin to normal. She thought not. While, she said, they might need a few fewer cashiers they would need some more ‘shoppers’ to fill online orders and she guessed that it might all balance out.

Then, I saw an article about people’s attitudes towards socializing when the lockdowns are lifted. A substantial minority of people say that they will not visit a restaurant or pub until there is a proven vaccine. Others say they will patronize those that have enhanced cleanliness standards (I’m not sure how that will be measured ~ I guess it will be very subjective) and enforce some sort of social distancing, e.g. tables and bar stools farther apart, which means, I think, fewer customers for the restauranteur or publican and less need for staff and fewer (and smaller?) tips for the remaining servers.

We’re already being told, by The Economist, that we can expect that the economy, even when more-or-less fully reopened, will be at about 90% of pre-pandemic levels. I suspect that some sectors are going to be at even lower levels.

The other evening, after dinner I heard a knock on the door. There was a parcel from Amazon. I saw the delivery person waiting for the elevator and I called out a ‘thank you.’ “You’re working late,” I said. “I’ll be at it for another hour, at least,” he said, “we’re run off our feet.” My guess is that the pandemic will deliver another blow to the ‘bricks and mortar’ retail business. Many people already buy a lot online, even casual clothes and shoes. Will they be willing to crowd into  The Bay or even Walmart when there are easy, reliable online alternatives that they have now seen working?

Another guess is that the alcohol retail business will also change. If people can get a new computer or a pair of shoes online, delivered to their door in a day or two, then why can they not order a case of beer or a bottle of liquor for home delivery and have it there in an hour if not, as with pizza, 30 minutes? Yes, some 15-year-olds will find a way to use Mom’s credentials but, very soon, the vendors and delivery services will ways to verify the recipients. Even in computer and office supply stores, people really only want to physically, personally, check on desk chairs, monitors and earphones/speakers.

I’m guessing there will be a decline in both retail and food and beverage service jobs when the economy reopens but that may be offset by increased employment in warehouses and delivery services. And I think those jobs are of about equal value because they have similar skill-sets. But Canada has lost two million jobs, so far, that’s the worst ever and it is on par for another Great Depression.

I wonder how people will treat public transit, which is often crowded. Will we be less inclined to be green because we’re afraid of crowds? What about ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft? Will people be comfortable in those cars (or in taxis) that someone else just sat in a few minutes ago? Will people trust drivers to sanitize their cars between trips? Or will the private car make a major comeback as people eschew public transport and ride-sharing?

And, above all, what about nursing homes? How will we justify the economics of long-term care for the elderly? It was great for Premier Ford to praise the people who do janitorial work in nursing homes as “heroes” but the simple economic fact is that their work has a very low value in an industry that has tight profit margins. Will we see “better” nursing homes? Will they be affordable? Will families want to keep Mom and Dad at home, maybe pressing city governments to change zoning rule to allow more and more (and smaller)  “granny flats” and so on? But how will the working poor, the precariat, who already live in cramped apartments care for their elderly parents? Will “good” nursing homes be priced out of their reach? Will there be public long-term care facility, as the Canadian Labour Congress demands? Will they be better than other public services?

I’m just speculating here, extrapolating a few local observations into some bigger, more general questions. My big questions are:

  • Will we all have to adapt to a ‘new normal‘ that is based, in some part on fear of our friends and neighbours?
  • Are our governments (and governments in waiting) ready, willing and able to help enterprises and entrepreneurs and workers, especially the precariat, to adapt to such changes?

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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