This nightmare year has finally cut us some slack. The coronavirus vaccine has arrived. The Electoral College has successfully completed its work. The apocalypse did not come. (You want proof? Mad Rex, the apocalypse-themed restaurant in Fishtown, just went out of business.) The pandemic that knocked us for a loop did not knock us out.
Maybe that’s why I’ve had to update the lament I’ve been uttering to myself multiple times a day over the last 10 months. “When will this be over?” has become “When this is over …”
I know it’s early to start thinking about going back to normal life, especially since we have no idea what normal will look like in a post-COVID world, or even when we’ll be able to put post in front of COVID. But it’s human nature to make plans. Most of us have already compiled a mental list of the things we’ll do when the yoke of COVID-imposed restrictions is lifted: Hug a loved one! Have a big party! Travel someplace exotic! Sit next to a stranger on the train! It’s a small thing, but I can’t wait to wear lipstick again. When this is over.
And yet, for all the terribleness of this pandemic, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, we’ve learned some unexpected lessons from our enforced isolation. This year of lockdown has inspired entirely new ways of living and accelerated our dependence on technology. We’ve also been forced to confront the deep unfairness that courses through American life, and the unnecessary suffering that those inequities have produced. Which changes from this bitter time are worth keeping?
It turns out, we are a lot more flexible as a society than we realized. When the pandemic hit in March, a vast labor force, albeit one composed mainly of white-collar professionals, set up emergency workplaces in their homes within days. Sure, there was plenty of carping at first. We didn’t have the space. We didn’t have the right chairs. The kids interrupted us even more than our coworkers did. It was impossible to get stuff done.
The flexibility to work from home should remain an option after COVID. While some office workers can’t wait to resume the serendipitous interactions they enjoyed with colleagues, a recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 54% of Americans actually prefer going straight from the breakfast table to their job. The time and money saved from commuting has been a gift for those fortunate enough to do so. People have discovered the healthful benefits of midday walks, home-cooked meals, and sitting down to lunch at a table instead of a desk. And even though remote-learning has stressed many families, especially those living in cramped quarters, hardworking parents have also found joy in spending more time around the house with their kids.
The idea that working and living should be separate realms is a relatively recent condition. Until the late 19th century, extended families spent their days together laboring on the farm or in a workshop. Many people created a 21st-century version of those extended families when they formed babysitting and teaching pods with their relatives or neighbors. Put those improvised social networks on the list of things to keep.
Remote work has also opened up a wider range of housing choices. Once you’re no longer tethered by physical proximity to an office, you’re free to live in a place that best suits your needs. As a city that offers abundant parks and a great selection of housing at relatively affordable prices, Philadelphia stands to benefit from this new residential flexibility. Cheaper rent is what brought Michael Salera, a Philadelphia-born tech consultant, back to his hometown after 32 years in New York City. “That, and the combination of family and friends,” he told me shortly after he arrived this summer.
Thanks to our newfound flexibility, we finally accepted that we could loosen up our antiquated voting system. To avoid spreading COVID at the polls, states put in place an entirely new system of mail-in ballots. The result was the highest turnout in a presidential election in over a century, an astounding victory for democracy. There are kinks still to be worked out. But who wants to go back to long lines and limited hours at the polls (other than a certain losing presidential candidate)?
Let cars take a backseat
The lockdown has been surprisingly good for the planet. Because fewer people are driving to work, carbon emissions fell significantly in the first six months of the pandemic — more than they did during the 1979 oil crisis or the 2008 recession. Reducing our use of gas-powered cars is crucial to tackling climate change, which remains an even bigger existential threat than the pandemic. Let’s leave our cars in the garage as long as we can.
The pandemic shows we can recalibrate our relationship with our vehicles in other ways. Before the virus hit, it was heresy to suggest that neighborhoods should give up some of their on-street parking for other public uses. But in a desperate effort to help local restaurants survive, city and suburban officials have been able to transform dozens of spots into outdoor dining rooms with barely a word of protest. While the furnishings at these “streeteries” range from rudimentary assemblages of planters to architect-designed cabins, they would improve greatly if streeteries became permanent. Surveying the eclectic canopies lining the 1500 block of Sansom Street, Sam Mink, owner of the Sansom Street Oyster House, said the block, and others, should “never be reopened to cars.” He’s right.
Newfound respect for parks and people
Before the vaccine offered a cure for COVID, parks were one of the few antidotes to the isolation imposed by the disease, and they’ve gotten an extreme workout since March. The ability to bike and run along a car-free Martin Luther King Drive or picnic on the banks of the Schuylkill helped us through these difficult times. We need to express our newfound respect by adequately funding these essential spaces. While we’re at it, we should reclaim the city’s many asphalt schoolyards for greener uses. Think how many kids could return to in-person learning if these spaces were converted to outdoor classrooms.
From the moment the pandemic began, essential workers suited up to do battle against the virus, even fashioning makeshift basic protective gear when the real thing was unavailable. We hung window signs thanking them for their efforts. But token gestures are not nearly enough. We need to translate our appreciation for heroic efforts by ensuring that service workers in Philadelphia are paid a living wage of $15 an hour, instead of the state’s desultory minimum of $7.25. Before the pandemic, Philabundance estimated that 300,000 people in the city didn’t have enough to eat. Today, that number is believed to be over 400,000.
We know there’s no going back to what existed before the pandemic, and that cities will have to make painful adjustments. If more people continue to work from home, companies could end up leasing less office space. What happens to all the lunch joints, small shops, and newsstands that served those office workers? Roughly 40% of the people who populate Center City’s corporate towers are suburbanites. How will Philadelphia make up the lost wage tax if they no longer work within the city’s borders? Will we still have downtown centers if online shopping reduces brick-and-mortar retail to a few scattered archipelagos of shops?
We used to talk about the suburbs as bedroom communities. Philadelphia and other urban centers could well become bedroom cities. If we can improve our parks and open up our streets to people instead of cars, they could become even more livable. We might even learn to love Zoom.