A little over a month ago, I was in a ZOOM meeting hosted by the Bristol Bar Association, in which all of the judges in the Second Judicial District spoke about the measures they were taking concerning in-person hearings, remote hearings, and social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in light of the directives of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

One of the lawyers asked, “When are things going back to normal?” One of the judges (I can’t remember which) immediately answered, “Never.” He added that what he meant was that a timeframe for restoration of normalcy could not be established at that time. I suspect his answer to the same question would be the same today.

We all know that COVID has required us to make many adjustments in business, in healthcare, in education, in shopping, and in travel. But what are things going to be like post-COVID?

The question leads me back to the judge’s answer of “never.” I don’t think we are ever going to live in a world with no COVID at all, not even after we have a vaccine, whenever that may be. Lest anyone panic, we don’t live in a world without influenza, and never have. But we haven’t had a flu pandemic since 1918. The same is true of many other diseases, none of which have been “killed off” but simply controlled by vaccines and modern medical treatments. The question ought to be, “What are things going to be like after the pandemic has subsided, as it will?”

I’m not equipped with a crystal ball, but will hazard some predictions.

1. We will have more telecommuting.

The practice of working with remote electronic connection from a remote location has been growing in popularity anyway. Businesses sending large hunks of the workforce home has become common practice during the pandemic. It has taught us which functions can be done well remotely, and which require some level of personal interaction. I expect tolerance for working remotely will continue after the pandemic has receded – but not at present levels.

2. We will have more remote meetings of all sorts.

Audio and video teleconferencing have been with us for years, but they’ve exploded since March. ZOOM has gone from a lightly used application to software used by millions. It is now common to have ZOOM conferences regularly.

Immediately prior to the pandemic lockdown, my sister’s company was flying her all over the country for meetings week after week. No more, but she is using ZOOM, Skype, and FaceTime frequently. Her travel costs have gone from significant to non-existent.

In my profession, we are taking depositions, conducting mediation sessions, conducting arbitration hearings, and even court hearings by video-teleconference. The Tennessee Supreme Court decreed that remote hearings should be preferred, and some lawyers and judges were unhappy with that directive. But many liked it. Clients liked saving travel costs.

Making some these changes permanent will require changes in court rules by the Supreme Court, and possibly some action by the General Assembly. But there are those who will push for them. I’d like to see at least some of them enacted.

Why shouldn’t they? I mediated a dispute using ZOOM, and have another scheduled. In both cases, lawyers saved or will save time, and clients saved or will save time and travel expenses.

3. Don’t expect some level of social distancing or enhanced sanitation requirements to go away soon.

A friend of mine recently remarked, “One of the good things about this COVID stuff is that we’re all cleaner.” He was right. Not that most people were exactly nasty before, but the recent emphasis on disinfecting surfaces, washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, and so on has to have improved our work and home environments. Hopefully, these habits will linger.

There is no reason to think the directives to keep “social distance” from others, and to wear masks when social distancing is impossible, will be relaxed in the near future. Even after they are, many folks will realize that if social distancing reduces the risk of transmission of COVID-19, it probably also reduces the risk of catching the flu, the common cold, and other maladies. Most will not continue to wear masks (which carry their own health hazards if not changed or washed regularly) after requirements are relaxed. But some will.

Time will tell exactly how permanent these changes are. But not every genie we’ve released will go back in the bottle.


Originally published in the Kingsport (TN) Times-News.