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Published April 28, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

How normal will normal be after Texas reopens?

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

My vehicle inspection is due. My dentist wants to replace a crown. And I need a haircut.

After more than a month of social distancing, my to-do list is growing. So is my anxiety about getting chores done during the pandemic.

Compared to the challenges facing those of you who have lost jobs, my problems are trivial. But thinking about what in normal times would be simple chores made me realize the economic pain caused by COVID-19 will linger long after stay-in-place lock-downs end.

Knowing that Texas ranks next to last in per capita virus testing does not fill me with confidence about venturing out in public to tackle these routine chores.

Do you feel that the coronavirus curve has flattened enough to:

- Let you feel safe waiting in a room with strangers while your car is being inspected?

- Let your dentist work on your teeth?

- Let your barber violate the 6-foot rule to cut your hair?

Unless a vaccine is developed, I can’t say I would be comfortable doing any of these.

Thank goodness I am retired. I will have to summon up enough courage to get these chores done, but at least I won’t have to worry about whether a co-worker has the virus.

All this anxiety is why I agree with the economists who believe reopening the economy won’t happen overnight but will come in waves with lots of stress for consumers in the marketplace and employees in the workplace.

Granted, given my medical history, I may be more skittish than you about returning to a normal routine with the virus still on the prowl.

Eight years ago, I caught the flu. For reasons that are not quite understood, my immune system malfunctioned. My antibodies not only attacked the virus, but also my spinal cord. I have been in a wheelchair ever since. I am not anxious for a rematch, with any kind of flu.

I don’t think I will be the only reluctant consumer. I don’t envision consumers rushing out to restaurants, movie theaters, airports or sporting events.

Indeed, a survey by Seton Hall University found that seven in 10 Americans would not feel comfortable attending a sporting event until a vaccine is developed. Another survey found that only a third of Americans would take a commercial flight, go to a movie theater or visit a theme park.

“You can’t just turn the light switch on and have everyone go back to work, as much as businesses would love to do that,” Suzanne Clark, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the New York Times.

It won’t only be consumers who are impacted. Workers will be forced to make a painful choice: Should they report to work and risk infecting themselves and their families with the coronavirus, or remain home and risk losing income or their jobs?

The employer-employee battle lines are already being drawn.

Bank of America made headlines during the pandemic when a recording of a recent phone call indicated a bank executive was pressuring employees to come into the New York office instead of working from home.

And Amazon has confirmed that it fired workers who criticized its warehouse conditions.

Then there is the case of Smithfield Foods in South Dakota. Union workers at the huge pork processing plant protested conditions after the first worker was infected. The company responded by posting signs telling workers with symptoms to stay home and saying that they would not be penalized for missing work.

But the company also lured employees into working with a $500 bonus for those who did not miss work in April. The plant is now closed after hundreds of workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

I am afraid millions of Americans will confront difficult workplace choices as we reopen the economy.

So far, much of the burden of carrying the economy has fallen on doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and, yes, underpaid grocery clerks, 30 of whom have died.
How will you react when we get the go-ahead to end stay-in-place? Me? I am going let my wife cut my hair.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)