I used to love to eat in restaurants. Five or six nights a week. When I say “used to” I don’t mean when I was a kid. I mean pre-COVID-19, about a year and a half ago.
But now, even vaccinated, and with nearly all (surviving) restaurants open and willing to seat me, I find myself in no hurry to return. Things feel different.
As we wake up to a maskless world, the assumption that Americans would be like racehorses at the post — as soon as the bell rang, we’d go thundering back to our old routines — is proving true and not true.
Yes, bars seem to be jammed. Does that surprise you? People who like to drink in groups can’t do it alone. But other activities are not storming back to pre-pandemic levels.
Eateries are open. Offices are open. Factories are open. Movie theaters are open. But customers and workers are making choices. And they’re not based on fear.
They’re based on alternatives.
Take the entertainment world, which became a stay-at-home smorgasbord during the pandemic. Movies intended for the big screen were suddenly available in your living room — some of them even free with the streaming service you paid for. “Mulan,” a Disney film that would have surely packed theaters, was instead released as pay-per view. So was “Trolls World Tour.” Families welcomed having something to watch with the kids while in lockdown.
But now, even with doors open, an expectation of home delivery has been created. Do people even want to return to the cineplex?
For blockbusters, yes. I doubt Avengers movies will have a hard time drawing crowds. But smaller films, light comedies, romances, dramas, may find it’s small screen or no screen. It’s not that rules changed. It’s that habits did.
Who needs that hustle and bustle?
The work world was similarly spun on its axis. Remote access. Digital communication. Zoom calls. Part-time attendance. They all became part of a new normal.
But the new, new normal — the one that comes after the pandemic — is seeing its own shift. Part of the current labor shortage can certainly be blamed on the unemployment benefits that allow certain workers to earn as much staying home as they would working.
But clearly another element is that people have decided not to race back to a job. Some have found they enjoy being home, some have chosen to tend to their children as opposed to paying for day care, some have found that living in a smaller community and tele-working is far better than the expensive rents and hassles of a big city. It’s not an accident that cities with over 1 million people showed the largest declines in population during the pandemic year.
Restaurants may find people prefer cooking at home. Health clubs may find people prefer a Peloton in their basement. The question that remains is this:
Is this temporary or permanent?
Life has slowed down for us all
I’m still not sure. You know how, when you first wake up in the morning, you could never contemplate doing things at that moment that you might end up doing later? You don’t wake up hungry for steak dinner. You don’t lift off the pillow wanting to go bowling.
It feels a little like that. The activities are ready, but our biorhythms are not. We’ve gotten used to a slower pace. We’ve gotten used to wearing shorts and T-shirts at home.
We’ve gotten used to less travel. In a typical year, pre-pandemic, I would fly well over 100,000 miles, much of it for work, some of it for pleasure.
Today, the idea of that much flying seems absurd to me. But why? It’s not because I’m worried about COVID. It’s not even the insistence on masks that makes the flights uncomfortable.
It’s more that so much travel just feels like a massive undertaking now. That many runs to the airport? That many TSA lines? I am only 15 months older than when the pandemic shut things down. But my previous habits sometimes feel like adolescence, while current habits feel like adulthood.
Do you find this as well? Have you discovered that cooking at home and eating with your family is actually pretty nice and worth preserving? Have you found walking around your neighborhood for exercise, as opposed to going to a gym, is a good way to stay fit and find out who your neighbors are?
Things change. Maybe we yawn and stretch and shower and dress and then we’re back in the same old numbers to the workplaces, eateries and entertainment we left behind. Or maybe we learned something during the lockdown that we don’t want to forget. All I know is that, as I write this, it’s Saturday afternoon, and I have no plans for Saturday night. And I can’t remember the last time I did.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.