Look at that picture. Preston Street. Restaurants and cafés galore. Preston Street. Reduced to a ghost town. The contrast with pre-covid Preston Street is striking. No one around. Nobody on the street. No cars, no traffic, no action. Yeah; ghost town.
At this time of day, Preston Street would ordinarily be bustling. But now, I walk its length, taking in the sight of closed-up, forlorn eateries, row upon row. Each one with a makeshift sign offering an interpretation of our collective new normal. Some signs simply say, “Closed.” Others announce a willingness to make a go of it, advising that they’re open for “Take-out Only.” Reading those signs, I wonder: What’s to become of all these restaurants? How many will open again? How many will change their business model, with a pivot to something else? Maybe a switch to catering, or full meal-prep for delivery only. Some may not survive at all. Empty chairs stacked upon tables in darkened dining rooms, remaining that way, until another brave and aspiring entrepreneur turns the lights back on. The restaurant business is a tough slog at the best of times. In a covid-19 world, I just can’t imagine the stress that restauranteurs deal with, day in and day out.
I keep walking. It’s not only Preston Street. It’s quiet everywhere.
Surrounding roads are deserted too, devoid of loud cars and louder-still motorcycles; hardly a truck and only the occasional bus. Sidewalks are nearly abandoned, most of us not wanting to chance the potentially hazardous outdoors. Whether it’s afternoon or early morning, I marvel at the changed sounds of the city. Birds are chirping, you can hear them plainly enough. There’s the sound of the wind blowing through winter-worn trees—their branches not budding yet—standing there, so barren and so lonely. Construction is still open in this city, and from far away, I can hear the sounds of workers. There’s what appears to be hammers striking upon girders, way up high, forty floors above street level, in a near-completed condo tower. And there’s a muffled mechanical sound, from deep below ground, as more workers prepare the subterranean framing for yet another condominium. Those sounds, all of them, carry further now, not drowned out as they would have been, pre-covid, by the noise of never-ending traffic.
Walking empty streets, my mind conjures up visions of a post-covid world. How will it change? How will we change? What customs and habits will we choose to avoid? How will we interact going forward? I imagine possible scenarios. Some plausible; others far-fetched. Simple things. Things like payment. Before covid, experts viewed the handling of cash as onerous and inefficient. Today, add the word tainted to its list of questionable bona fides. Not knowing what torturous, virus-ladened path it took before landing in our opened palm, we now refuse to touch a bill or a coin. Is this a preview of future commerce? The end of cash?
And what about a simple greeting, how will we greet one another? Are handshakes a thing of the past? What about those stylish double-pecks on the cheeks? Gone forever? Yes, perhaps. Maybe, going forward, we will bump fists or tap elbows; maybe we’ll click heals or, my preference, maybe we will adopt the Japanese method of a respectful bow. Or maybe there’ll be no need for any of that. Maybe we won’t bother meeting anyone anymore.
A survey, just this week, cited that more than fifty percent of sports fans feel uncomfortable about attending a future sporting event. Will that sentiment hold? If so, what replaces it? I try to picture the lack of social gatherings, of how that could impact the leisure and entertainment industries. There’s already talk of holding soccer matches and Formula One races in front of, well, no one. Closed doors, a TV audience only. There already exist established electronic-gaming competitions, and so maybe, post-covid, an even bigger and more profitable gaming industry will rush in to fill the void left by the absence of live sport. And what of the concert halls, theatres, arenas, and nightclubs? All of those, a thing of the past? I don’t know, but maybe Netflix, Spotify and all those other streaming services will be massive winners here. Maybe we’ll sit on our couches and remotely attend live concerts and theatrical productions, discussing them in real-time, as we’re apt to do, on our favourite social media stream.
And then there’s travel. Will the world which grew, over the last few decades, invitingly smaller and smaller, rendering us closer and closer together, now turn its back on foreigners? Will open borders suddenly shut? Imagine the business effect of such an outcome. Think of travel agents; hoteliers; AirBnB hosts; event planners; tour guides and Uber drivers. Think of airlines and, though I hate to kick someone when they’re down, think of all those empty cruise ships. Who would even consider a cruise today? No, no. Done and dusted. And, unless our attitudes revert back to pre-covid thinking, whole industries could disappear or, if not, at least find themselves reduced to a fraction of their former size.
We’ve all adopted—jumping in with both feet—an online world. Will we now pay virtual visits to international museums and historical landmarks? And does this mean that after so many years and so much talk, Virtual Reality will now come to the forefront? Gene Roddenberry and his holodeck, just one more Star Trek prediction come true?
Maybe we will avoid conferences and other gatherings too. Weddings for example, maybe we will attend such ceremonies using Zoom and Jitsi or BlueJeans. And if that happens, maybe there’ll be a massive demand for upgraded devices—faster processors, better AV equipment, bigger screens—to facilitate our online meetings. Maybe, to accommodate those virtual weddings and parties, we’ll also coordinate catered meals to be delivered to our doorsteps. Maybe we will all want to experience, not only the same sights and sounds, but also the same flavours, allowing us to post clever or (more likely) snide remarks on Twitter about our remotely-shared roast duck.
And hey, maybe we’ll see a further convergence of virtual and real-time services. Maybe Purolator, Microsoft and Saint-Hubert BBQ will join forces and thus organize your childrens’ virtual birthday parties. Or maybe Amazon, which is already a major player in web services and which already owns Whole Foods, will beat them to it, becoming the first integrated virtual events coordinator, going on to host all the ne plus ultra events of the year. Maybe that, right there, is the future of our shared experiences, making us feel like we’re close together, even though we’re far apart. And maybe, recognizing a trend when they see one, Uber drivers will dump their cars and buy parcel-delivery vehicles. And maybe storefronts will become depots for parcel pickup only. Also, maybe because of increased residential demand, landlords will decide to convert near-empty office buildings into condominiums. And maybe, because we’re all using VR or AR devices from the comfort of our homes—meaning that we’re all working, resting and socializing inside our individual four walls—maybe someone will develop modular convertible furniture to accommodate our different demands. I can see the ads now: Office by Day! Gaming by Evening and Sleep by Nighttime! Choose ACME’s new Smart Transformer Furniture, all Controlled with your Mobile Device! Who knows? Maybe that’ll happen. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
We’re all driving less too. Reflecting that fact, I read that insurance companies are considering rebating a portion of our premiums. Hey they’ve got the stats, insurance claims have got to be way down. I imagine that, short term, this is a financial win for those big insurers. And maybe, after years of big payouts from weather-related events, they were in need of a win. But long term, if people simply decide that driving isn’t important anymore, well I don’t know. Who needs insurance? Who needs mechanics? What of the car manufacturers? And what about the vertical parts suppliers? Adapt or die, I suppose. Build something else, I suppose. We’ll still need trucks and we’ll still need airplanes and trains. More so for the transport of goods than of people, maybe, but we’ll still need them. And what about roads and highways? Will we suddenly find ourselves with bigger sidewalks and wider bicycle lanes? Maybe we’ll see public patios with socially-distanced chairs and tables—which of course will accommodate no more than two people—where we can sit to enjoy, a respectful distance from anyone else, a coffee and croissant that we ordered on our mobile app from the neighbourhood café that only does takeout.
As a result of all this, maybe the nature of trade and political partnerships will change too. We’ve all read about the hoarding of PPE, not only by individuals but—worse—by sovereign nations. Maybe this (and other) examples of the decline in international cooperation will lead governments to encourage manufacturing—especially of essential supplies—back home. And will the workers who were, only yesterday, assembling vehicles, tomorrow be assembling ventilators and other medical kit? Will we, as nations, become more self-sufficient, and therefore less efficient? Will businesses build more and smaller plants at home rather than massive factories in a low-cost foreign country? Will prices go up because of this? Or will multinational profits go down?
Finally, I reflect upon the environmental impact of covid-19. In many countries, the skies are clearer—cleaner too. Who can complain about that? Some say this drop in pollution will propel the sales of electric vehicles. All because we’re witnessing the impact of less pollution from greenhouse gases and internal combustion engines. And there’s more; wildlife is flourishing, becoming so bold as to visit the main streets of some towns and cities. Myself, I can’t help but wonder whether covid-19 is climate change on fast-forward. We’ve all read the stories about world leaders, at first, downplaying the scientists’ dire warnings, choosing to disbelieve their horrific forecasts. And we are all witness to this virus’ blitz-like and debilitating impact, and the subsequent change of tune from politicians caught not only flatfooted, but hopefully humbled and embarrassed too. How likely is it, then, that world leaders will begin to eke out the parallels between this quickly-moving covid experience and the relatively slow-motion effect of climate change? Maybe some of them will begin to give more weight to the opinions of their science and health experts. Maybe some of them will begin to think in terms above and beyond GDP and productivity. Yeah, who knows, maybe that’ll happen. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.