In last week’s column,I released the initial results of our Consumer Attitudes on Masking and Social Distancing survey, which was a very dense piece with lots of statistics and takeaways. The results are very instructive and I made several conclusive statements about the importance of social distancing. I fear though, I may have botched the rollout of the information a bit, by presenting such a statistically dense article.

When doing an article like this, as a writer, you’re addressing many different audiences. There is a tendency to try and speak to all possible audiences. The list of 12-15 statistics I shared was to try to address the concerns of those different audiences.

Therefore this week, I want to reiterate just two key points from last week in a more conversational way, and then also give you some signs to watch for in terms of recovery growth. As we re-open we need to know what to look for as good or bad signs of our recovery. Hopefully, this can help us all gain some perspective of where we are in this process.

Leaps of Evolution 2020 is shaping up to be a year we all won’t forget for a long time to come. Evolution is often considered to be a gradual effect, but in reality, sometimes the changes come in abrupt alterations. The way things are done fundamentally change almost overnight. That is what 2020 has been- a proverbial rock slide that lands in the river and redirects the flow of the water into a new unpredictable direction. A better example is air travel- after 9/11 air travel just changed and we all had no choice but to accept the new reality. 2020 feels like that in a way.

That evolutionary leaps, from a business sense, take many forms. Telemedicine seems to be a positive example. Both of our member healthcare systems have reported that there has been a very positive response from patients about telehealth checkup appointments. Telemedicine technology has been in place for five years or more, but they couldn’t get many patients to utilize it until Covid-19 struck. Now being forced to utilize it, many patients have found it more convenient then driving to an appointment to be seen.

Another example is the businesses that have seen increased productivity of remote workers. Several engineering firms and others have commented on the great work their people are doing from home offices. They’re considering letting them adjust their schedules so they don’t need to come into the office five days per week.

From the survey, we find a new evolution when looking at responses to ‘which statement best matches your feelings when you are in a business where safe social distancing practices and masking is not happening.’ The most popular answer was, “I will reach out to friends who I know are high risk for infection and tell them to avoid that business.” The second and third most popular choices both involved not returning to that business next time, and not returning to the business at all in the future. The fourth most popular answer was “leave the business immediately.” Make no mistake, the consumer is evolving because safety matters clearly. Social distancing and wearing masks matters to them.

Two Sides Don’t Make It Even

The next two options on that same question of the survey, the 5th and 6th most popular answers were “It doesn’t bother me” and “If they force me to wear a mask I will go somewhere else.” 20%-25% of respondents selected these answers (they could select as many answers as they wanted on this question). This means that 20-25% of respondents either don’t think masking and social distancing is a big deal, or that if forced to do it, they will shop elsewhere. It’s instructive that some feel that way, but we need to remember 75-80% did not select those statements. There are two sides, but they are not even.

This is really important to remember as we move forward. We will have decisions to make on re-opening schools, sporting events and travel over the coming weeks, and there will be people for and against those decisions. However, if it’s 75% vs. 25%, that isn’t close. That means 3 people feel one way for every 1 person who feels the other. In making policy the majority matters and we need to not pretend that both sides are equal, just because there are two sides.

Signs to Look For

Here are a few things I’m keeping an eye on to determine where we are at in this recovery process: School re-openings will be a big sign for how the recovery looks. If schools want to be online only in the fall, we can expect a slower recovery, and the parents will become teachers again. This will strain their abilities at work, slow their productivity for business pieces and mean significantly less traffic in local businesses as more parents won’t be able to go to work even if they were planning to. If schools re-open with in-person classes full-time, it means the worst is behind us, and we can return to normal. Keep in mind, this is not a school board decision- this is a public health decision.

When can lodging facilities accept out-of-state travelers without quarantine, is another huge sign. Other states are allowing out-of-state visitors- I hope we can get there soon. Not only will it be a big piece for our businesses economically, but it also means we have the right protocols to handle what may come.

Other pieces to watch include: when will we have outdoor concerts, in-person town council meetings, when will theaters re-open, and when can we have 100 person indoor gatherings again. These are all gradual signs of progress, as each has an inherent risk. Keep an eye on these and celebrate each step as a milestone of being one more step closer to normal.

Cory King is the executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber.

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