A mask in the pocket & WFH days: Six pandemic lifestyle changes that are worth keeping

NEW YORK: On Nov. 17, 1918,
The New York Times published a lengthy interview with the city’s health commissioner, Royal Copeland, titled ‘Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time.’ Copeland, who a few years later would become a United States senator, spoke about the city’s comparative success combating the Spanish flu, which at that point, although it had killed nearly 20,000 people, had caused considerably less devastation than in other major cities. Copeland credited this outcome in large part to systems and habits put in place during previous public health crises. Even a century earlier, there were, in other words, always takeaways.

Now, two years into the current pandemic, it seems like a good point to ask ourselves what changes – to our patterns, lifestyles and public spaces – might be with us for good, or at least for a very long time, given that the future will almost certainly bring new variants and disruption.

A mask will probably live in your pocket forever.

Mask-wearing, though popular in many countries around the world before the pandemic, especially where pollution is severe, was always regarded with suspicion in the United States – a sign of indulging unnecessary paranoia. Although masks became the subject of a lot of defiance in many states during the past two years, New Yorkers embraced them. Compliance with wearing masks on subways remains remarkable.

We have also learned that they have multiple uses – as face warmers, as shields against unpleasant street smells, as concealers of skin problems and, for women, as armor against men who pass you by on the street ordering you to “smile.” Their use is now normalized, and we’ll pull them out of the drawer every flu season.

Remote school was a disaster. Remote work was fantastic.

In his 1918 interview with the
Times, Copeland attributed the city’s ability to keep flu numbers down in part to his insistence that schools remain open. The logic was that the 750,000 children in the public school system who lived in tenements would be better protected against the virus in “clean airy school buildings” where, he said, “there is always a system of inspection.” Then, of course, there was no Google Classroom. Last year, research confirmed what observation led many parents to believe: that the pandemic left students with academic setbacks, widening the education gap, with the most vulnerable students left furthest behind. Long school closures were not a good idea.

Remote work was a different matter altogether. For those whose jobs allowed it, instead of commuting, people spent time exercising, cooking, taking care of chores and spending time with family. Productivity, often lost to pointless meetings, went up for many people. Now, at least, during a Google hangout in which co-workers needlessly drone on, you could hide behind an avatar and fold your laundry.

Everyone fell in love with biking.

If you didn’t already have a bike in the early phase of the pandemic, you soon learned that the bright idea to go buy one immediately was shared by many, many others. By the end of 2020, sales had nearly doubled nationwide, and waits for bikes could last months. Last year, Citi Bike was struggling to keep up with demand, and people complained that it was nearly impossible to dock bikes. The city responded by working to improve biking infrastructure, and a new cadre of bike advocates was born just as New York was plunging into the hard work of meeting its carbon targets.

Everyone said ‘I love you’ to the urban wild.

The pandemic fundamentally changed our relationship to the outdoors. It wasn’t just eating out on a sidewalk under a heat lamp in January that became a thing; so many forms of social and professional life moved beyond the indoors – first out of necessity, then for the sheer pleasure of it. In 2020, attendance in New York state parks hit a record. In the city, people began exploring parks far from their own neighborhoods. (When a colleague told me about some hiking trails in Staten Island he had been to, I quickly corralled my son and our friends to check them out.) Walks with friends took the place of meeting up for drinks or coffee. And if you were lucky enough to live near some of the people you work with, you might get together to brainstorm on the Brooklyn piers, never missing the windowless conference room.

Workers rose up.
We’ve heard a lot recently about the Great Resignation and the reordering of priorities around life and work that the pandemic begot. The gap between the huge profits made by some companies during the COVID-19 crisis and the poor working conditions and low wages of so many of their employees bolstered the labor movement. Across the country, strikes, rallies, walkouts and protests were on the rise.

Last fall here, City Council passed bills that set minimum pay and sought to improve the conditions of gig workers at app-based delivery services, efforts of which allowed tens of thousands of New Yorkers to safely order takeout during the pandemic’s worst moments. Previously, those workers had not even been allowed to use restaurant bathrooms.

Forget Miami, the Catskills and every other place you thought you were going to live.

The stories began coming in earnest early last year – the trend pieces about New Yorkers who left at the height of the pandemic, some with the intention of doing so permanently. Their apartments were too small. The prospect of a backyard firepit called. The world was already upending itself; why not make a change?

The real estate market in suburbs and rural towns and on beaches outside New York soared. Bidding wars were making headlines. But eventually, living on a goat farm in Sullivan County got tedious. The sump pump in the Morristown Colonial kept breaking. The ‘Ice Storm’ scene in Connecticut appalled you, and just because you could play tennis on a public court every day didn’t mean that you ever got around to it. You missed the city. It’s true that in the city, you very rarely went to experimental theater or ate grasshopper tacos in Queens or had any real inclination to go to the Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective at Lincoln Center. But all those other people did. Above all, New York is the thrill of its human capital. The affair was over; you wanted the marriage back.


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