One of the more depressing brands of COVID-19 experts one encounters in the media nowadays are what I call the Never Be The Samers. To NBTSers, COVID isn’t a 100-year storm, the effects of which we’ll be struggling with until we find a vaccine. It’s not a once-in-a-lifetime crisis to be endured. It’s a moment historians will regard as a dividing line between two very different kinds of developed societies — in precisely the way the Spanish Flu, for instance, was not.
Notable things that will never be the same, we hear, include restaurants: “Dining room tables permanently spread six feet apart. Disposable paper menus instead of laminated ones,” the South Florida Sun Sentinel predicted recently. “Forget about salt and pepper shakers or napkin holders on tables. Want ketchup with those hash browns? Flag down your masked and gloved server.”
Flying will never ever be the same, the Toronto Star reported last week — “from fewer seats on flights, to longer boarding times, to reconfiguring airports for social distancing.” A University of Toronto airline industry expert predicted jet travel would once again become the exclusive domain of the wealthy: Discount airlines will disappear, competition will decrease, and cheap winter jaunts to Florida and the Caribbean will be something middle-class Canadians tell their wide-eyed grandchildren about. There will be no more business class, a Ryerson University tourism expert predicted, because the corporate types who buy those tickets will henceforth and forever conduct their business by videoconference. (Because who doesn’t love videoconferencing.)
Not everyone in the NBTS crowd is pessimistic. Some see the pandemic bringing about a radical reordering of society along their preferred lines. In many cases this involves obliterating capitalism. Others foresee more realistic positive tweaks: Supermarket workers having proven their essentialness in spades, on what principle would the biggest chains roll back the “temporary” raises they awarded?
The restaurant business was always a precarious one; in recent weeks, many businesses have closed forever. In an interesting article in The Guardian, London food writer Jonathan Nunn recently argued the radical adaptations the survivors will have to make might lead to a healthier and more sustainable industry in the longer term, with a more informed and discerning customer base.
That sort of lasting change seems entirely possible — especially since most of the Western world has many months of anti-pandemic measures to endure yet. But I suspect those who predict we’ll never again eat cheek-by-jowl in a French bistro — at home, let alone in France, because we’ll never again be able to afford to fly there — will end up looking rather foolish. Much as people complain about mass-market air travel, the demand for it is understandably overwhelming: The ability to fly just about anywhere in the world and back for $2,000 at most is one of humanity’s great achievements. And with all due respect to the Ryerson University expert, videoconferencing sucks. We will always crave human contact, whether it’s family, friends, business colleagues or total strangers in some faraway land.
Here in Canada — and particularly in Toronto — I continue to be heartened by the positive developments that have come from governments simply getting out of the way. This week Alberta announced that a temporary measure allowing restaurants and bars to sell booze to go would become permanent. Now it should be Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s turn. Not a peep of protest has been heard about restaurants being allowed to sell, and even deliver, wine and beer with food. This is particularly remarkable considering the Progressive Conservative government’s previous relaxations of liquor laws — entirely mainstream things like moving back opening time to 9 a.m. and letting people have a bottle of wine with a picnic — have caused mass head explosions. I dare to dream that this most Presbyterian of provinces and cities might learn a thing or two. Ideally, citizens would even demand it.
The Toronto bureaucracy’s resolute suspicion of just about anyone who wants to do just about anything has been very much on display: As cities around the world closed off lanes of (non-existent) traffic and entire streets to allow outdoor recreation at a safe distance, and encouraged people to get outdoors, Toronto Public Health stuck to the most Torontonian position imaginable: We only close streets for parties; ergo, if we close streets, there will be parties.
Slowly, however, its resolve is breaking. On Thursday it announced 57 kilometres of roadway would be designated “quiet streets,” with only local traffic allowed. That includes Kensington Market, a rabbit’s warren of narrow streets that nearly any other Western city would have pedestrianized decades ago. When this is all over, what if we just keep those streets quiet? What if we kept letting restaurants sell wine to go? What if we let food trucks and stalls set up shop without getting a letter from the Queen? What if things are never the same again … because they’re better?
It’s an ironic development: At a time when governments have clamped down on almost literally every aspect of day-to-day life and commerce, they are abandoning longstanding rules governing how life and commerce operates. But if those rules are an intolerable hindrance during a crisis, how can they be a benefit during normal times?