FOR MUCH of the pandemic, you could find all sorts of dire predictions in the media about how "Life will never be the same. Everything has changed forever."
There’d be no more live concerts or live performances as we know them. People would have to get used to everything being streamed.
The restaurant experience would totally change. Or go away entirely. Everyone would cook and eat at home, in isolation.
No more handshaking or hugging.
Sports in a stadium with 80,000 people? Forget about it.
We’d have new empathy towards essential workers. We’d elevate grocery and other service workers to their rightful place in society, and actually pay them a decent wage, with a civilized amount of paid time off.
All those ideas are so April.
Now it’s May. All the predictions seemed to go out the window virtually the minute Georgia’s toothless, widely disregarded “shelter in place” order expired this past Thursday at midnight.
We could “never go back to how things were before.” Until we did.
It took one weekend.
Whether it was Tybee Island or Home Depot, Forsyth Park in Savannah or Piedmont Park in Atlanta, you’d never know there was a deadly global pandemic by the numbers of people who decided enough was enough, and they were getting back into the mix.
For Savannah, the “new normal” very quickly began looking just like the old normal — bachelorette parties and all.
While many welcomed the opportunity to get back to work and try to salvage businesses, one wonders if the rapid resumption of the local destination economy is happening way too quickly.
Even before the order was lifted, you could go on local chat pages and find a steady stream of inquiries from out of state in anticipation. They’d heard on the news that Georgia was “reopening,” and they wanted to come fill our vacant Airbnbs.
Many stated openly that they had grown tired of the lockdowns in their states, such as Ohio and Michigan, and wanted to go somewhere that was “back open,” with none of those pesky rules safeguarding public safety.
Savannah being a hospitable place — and dependent on tourists’ money — people eagerly responded with suggestions of where to stay and what to do.
While others, who thought it was happening too quickly, looked on with a mixture of disbelief and horror.
All the hard work and tough choices by local officials like Savannah Mayor Van Johnson were quickly taken for granted, as our relatively low rate of infection — a direct result of responsible governance — was effectively used against us.
Our fairly robust state of public health was taken as an invitation for others to come from out of state and weaken it.
No good deed goes unpunished.
In addition to pointing out the foibles and fecklessness of human nature, this all points out what a fiasco Georgia’s entire “plan” was to deal with the virus, and then reopen.
The endless mixed messages from Gov. Kemp — first proclaiming the importance of public health, then signing orders directly undermining it — set the tone.
The idea that the very first businesses allowed to open were the most touch-intensive, close-contact businesses of all — tattoos, hair, nails, massage — seemed like an absurd joke at best, a dangerous targeting at worst.
Kemp’s split-the-baby decision to let restaurants open dining rooms at reduced capacity with all kinds of special measures puts owners in a ridiculous bind: Risk life to stay open and give customers a very unsettling experience, but serving so few at a time that it doesn’t even make good business sense to open.
Their workers are put in a bind too. Because employers are no longer prohibited from being open, they can’t opt to stay on unemployment rather than return to a potentially unsafe environment.
And as has been the case from the beginning, you literally take your life in your hands by going grocery shopping, where no social distancing rules of any kind have ever been widely recognized or enforced.
But this being the Bible Belt, bars still aren’t allowed to open! Not until May 14 as of this writing. Makes no sense.
You can go to a restaurant bar and do the exact same thing you’d do at a bar that doesn’t serve food. (Wouldn’t it actually be safer at a bar that doesn’t serve food?)
So who are we kidding at this point?
I never bought the apocalyptic predictions that there’d be no more live music, or half of all restaurants would close, etc.
However, for a short window of time we were having a long overdue conversation in this country about ways to fix the deep wounds and fault lines the pandemic revealed:
The need for universal health care... the need for essential workers to have more rights and higher wages... the need to increase vital infrastructure like unemployment office servers... the need for a rent and mortgage freeze during economic crisis...the need to enter the 21st century with family leave and remote working options... the concept of Universal Basic Income... to name a few.
That brief, shining moment lasted maybe 2-3 weeks. Now we see just how quickly people can forget about all that talk of improving lives, and eagerly go back to being entitled, mindless consumers.
All that time we bought for our elected and appointed officials with our shared sacrifice was largely squandered.
I can’t help but think of the people dying of COVID-19, painfully trying to suck in one last breath in an intensive care unit, who weren’t even allowed to say goodbye to loved ones.
I can’t help but think of all the virus victims who were denied even a proper funeral service.
The lives that were saved are worth our sacrifice, obviously. But we can’t even agree on what works best in the public safety realm, what with the mainstreaming of bizarre conspiracy theories and with the usual partisan finger-pointing.
At this point, all we can do is hope for the best. Here at Connect Savannah we will continue to support the small businesses and community service organizations that have always been, and will continue to be, the heart of our audience and mission.