I’m on the road this morning, with very early flights. Being the prototypical Uptight Traveler, I got to Columbus’ John Glenn International Airport early to make sure there were no snags, which meant I encountered a gleamingly clean and mostly vacant terminal when I headed to my gate. (And, for those who make fun of my U.T. tendencies, I should note that there were long lines to check in bags at many of the airline counters when I arrived, so I am firm in my view that getting to the airport early remains a good option.)
This is the first flight I’ve taken since the mask mandate was lifted and masks became optional. Some travelers are wearing masks, but the vast majority are unmasked. I’d say the ratio of unmasked to masked is about 9 to 1. It’s kind of weird to be in a mostly unmasked airport after two years of pandemic-fueled masking. It makes the two-year masking period seem like a strange, unsettling dream.
As America works to recover from the various social, cultural, and economic impacts of the COVID pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly clear that one segment of the economy is facing a particularly difficult challenge: movie theaters.
The data on movie theater ticket sales tell a very sad tale for the industry. Ticket sales hit a high point in 2018, when 1,311,300,934 admission tickets were sold, producing revenues of $11,945,954,034. Sales dipped a bit in 2019, the last full pre-pandemic year, when 1,228,763,382 tickets were purchased–and then the bottom fell out. In 2020, when theaters were closed for most of the year in most of the country, only 221,762,724 tickets were sold, and I would guess most of those sales came in January and February, before shutdowns occurred in earnest in March. From that low point, sales rebounded slightly in 2021, to just under 500 million tickets, and if current trends continue, ticket sales in 2022 are on pace to hit just over 725 million–which is slightly better than half the industry’s best year.
In short, if you go to the local movie multiplex right now, you’re likely to find a lot of empty theaters, and you’ll get pretty good seats.
Interestingly, Gallup has periodically asked Americans about their movie attendance, and the recent data is dismal. In January of this year, Gallup announced that its polling data showed that Americans watched an average of 1.4 movies in a movie theater in the prior 12 months. The more compelling story, though, is told by individual movie attendance: 61 percent of respondents didn’t go to a theater at all during that 12-month period, 31 percent went out to watch between 1 and 4 movies, and 9 percent (figures are rounded for the math mafia out there) watched 5 or more movies. In 2007, by comparison, 39 percent of respondents attended between 1 and 4 movies in theaters, and 29 percent saw five or more movies. The Gallup data shows that movie attendance is particularly depressed among older Americans.
Gallup suggests that the movie theater business was grappling with challenges posed by competition from streaming services when the pandemic hit. With theaters then closed during the early days of the pandemic, and many people avoiding reopened theaters as new COVID variants emerged, the question now is whether people’s habits have changed to the point where going to a theater to watch a movie is even considered. And some of us would question whether the offerings being served up by Hollywood, where superhero movies and special effects rule the day, are going to entice broad groups of Americans to buy a ticket and a box of popcorn and settle into a theater seat to watch a film again.
The Biden Administration is weighing a tough decision: whether to appeal the federal court decision striking down the mask mandate the federal government imposed on air and train travelers during the COVID pandemic. It’s a very tough decision on both legal and political grounds.
The legal and political stakes in the decision on a potential appeal are high. Legally, the issue is whether the federal government wants to take the risk that a higher court will agree with the district court judge and establish a firmer precedent that the CDC doesn’t have the kind of sweeping power it has exercised over the past two years. Some people describe the district court decision as a poorly reasoned “legal disaster,” while others contend it is a reasonable interpretation of statutory text that simply was not intended to authorize an administrative agency to unilaterally impose nationwide mask mandates. Regardless of how you come out on that issue, for now the decision is simply the opinion of a single district court judge. If an appeal occurs, the federal government runs the risk of an adverse decision by a federal court of appeals and, potentially, the Supreme Court–raising the possibility that, if the nation’s highest court agrees with the federal district court judge in this case, the CDC’s ability to issue future public health mandates could be eliminated, unless and until Congress decides to amend the statute to clarify what is permitted.
It would be interesting to know whether, behind the scenes, the Biden Administration is encouraging the CDC to move in one direction or another. It’s hard for politicians to restrain themselves from politicking. We’ll never know for sure, because if that information came out it would undercut the depiction of the CDC as the neutral, objective, apolitical entity that is focused solely on scientific and medical evidence and the public health.
Philadelphia is going back to masks because a rise in COVID-19 cases in the City of Brotherly Love has hit the metric that triggers masking requirements. Starting April 18–a week-long delay was established to allow businesses to adjust–Philadelphia will again require masks in indoor public spaces, like restaurants, offices, and shops. Businesses have the option of requiring proof of vaccination in lieu of masks. In explaining the cause for the new mask regime, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:
“Philadelphia established a benchmark system in March that uses case counts, hospitalizations, and the rate of case increase to determine which safety strategies are needed. The seven-day daily average of cases, 142 as of April 8, and a 60% increase in case counts over the past 10 days met the standards to reintroduce the indoor mask mandate. There were 44 people hospitalized in the city Monday, a slight decrease from last week.”
The Philadelphia system of establishing triggers raises an interesting question: should raw numbers control policy, or should public officials exercise their judgment and weigh other issues? Are 142 cases a day and 44 hospitalizations in a city of about 1.5 million sufficient to cause reimposition of a mask mandate, and should other considerations–like obvious mask fatigue on the part of the population, and questions about how a general public that keenly wants to be done with COVID will react to a return to masking–come into play? Will reimposition of mask mandates result in protests and general civil disobedience and noncompliance with the order?
I hope public officials in Columbus and elsewhere are seriously thinking about the possible consequences of a return to masking, because there will be pressure from some quarters to follow Philadelphia’s lead. CNN reports that COVID cases are rising in the U.S., although the numbers are low compared to what we experienced in 2020 and 2021. And, curiously, Philadelphia’s reimposition of its mandate is coming on the same day that the current federal mask mandate for the transportation sector is set to expire. It will be an odd juxtaposition indeed if cities are reinstituting mask requirements at the same time the federal government is lifting them.
And that’s why people should always heed their Mom’s advice about “not burning your bridges.” By all means, leave a job if you think you can find something more fulfilling, more remunerative, or more suitable to your intended lifestyle–but acknowledge before you leave that your new gig might not turn out as you hope, and conduct your departure accordingly. If you are friendly, polite, and express appreciation for the opportunity you’ve had and the friends you’ve made when you hand in your two weeks’ notice, you’re leaving yourself a bit of a safety valve in case you learn from bitter experience that the new job of your dreams turns out to be the stuff of nightmares.
Those of us who have been around the block a few times have seen people leave a job and later come back, or try to do so. Learning that a new job isn’t working out often happens, even during “Great Resignations.” If you’ve left your old job on good terms, you might be able to get it back, or at least use your old boss as a reference as you search for another position. But if you acted like a jackass, told off your boss, and made some flame-throwing comments to your co-workers, forget it. So why not act with a bit of class, and some foresight, too?
We’re out in Tucson for a conference. It’s clear that many of the conference attendees are thrilled at the opportunity to participate in a live, in-person gathering again, after years of cancellations, “virtual events,” and video substitutes. But the desire to get back to normal tugs against the reality of emergence from the aftermath of a serious pandemic, and the lingering concerns of a significant part of the population that another variant might emerge and cause still more problems.
At our hotel, the signs of COVID-19 policies remain–from the masks worn by the staff, to the signage reminding people about social distancing and hand-washing, to the disposable sleeves covering the TV remote controllers in the hotel rooms that notify guests that their room has a “fresh remote”–which presumably means one that has just been sanitized. At pretty much every turn, you can’t help but be reminded of the pandemic.
And the signs aren’t just on the hotel side, either. Since the pandemic began, it’s been clear that there is a wide spectrum of risk tolerance among the population, and that continues to be true. Most of the guests out here are walking around unmasked, indoors and outdoors, but there is a percentage of mask-wearers. I’m sure they wouldn’t be comfortable if they saw no signs of COVID awareness and due care on the part of the hotel, which poses a challenge for establishments that are trying to appeal to the broadest range of visitors.
It seems obvious that, for some time into the future at least, we’re going to be in an interim, transitional period as the pandemic apparently winds down and we move into the next phase. We’ll be living with masks on airplanes and in health care facilities for a long time–perhaps forever–but one indicator of whether we get back to “normal” will be how long hotels feel they need to advise guests of “fresh remotes.”
Back in 2020 (cursed be its memory!) one of the first signs that the world was changing was the cancellation of the Arnold Sports Classic. Known in Columbus simply as “the Arnold,” the event is traditionally one of the biggest tourist weekends for the city, as participants, their families, exhibitors, and fans flock to various venues around town for a huge array of different events and competitions. You always knew the Arnold was back in town when you turned the calendar page to March and saw muscle-bound guys walking around downtown carrying bags crammed with giant containers of protein supplements and other products.
But in early March 2020, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther made the decision to cancel the Arnold due to COVID-19 for fear the event–which attracts people from around the world–could turn out to be a “super spreader” incident. For those of us in Columbus, at least, the cancellation of the Arnold way back in March 2020 sent a clear and unmistakable message: hey, if they are cancelling the Arnold, this coronavirus thing must really be serious! And there was no Arnold in March 2021, either.
But yesterday I was eating lunch in a downtown restaurant when I saw the familiar, bulky shapes of Arnold attendees stride by. They weren’t carrying bags of products–at least, not yet–but their mighty frames and arms so overdeveloped they could not rest at their sides made it quite clear that the Arnold was back. And frankly, it was great to see them. I’ve never attended an event at the Arnold, but for Columbus the reality of once again hosting that event, in person, is a sign that the world is slowly returning to some semblance of the pre-pandemic “normal.” In Ohio’s capital city, we might call it getting back to normArnold.
My guess is that every town in the United States will have some event that communicates that the pandemic is finally, blessedly over. I hope the sign that your corner of the world is back to business as usual comes soon, if it hasn’t come already.
I spent a lot of time in downtown Columbus today. Columbus is one of those cities where a mask mandate imposed by the Mayor has been in effect for months–since September 2021 and the early days of the Delta variant, in fact. (Who out there even remembers the dreaded days of the Delta variant? It seems like ancient history, doesn’t it?)
But today, the mask mandate was largely ignored. Many of the people I saw in downtown buildings weren’t masked up. And what was striking was the casualness of it all. People weren’t loud and proud about their de-masking or, so far as I could tell, consciously trying to make a political statement by walking inside buildings with a mask-free face. Instead, it was an utterly unceremonious thing–as if the maskless just decided that they had had enough, and weren’t going to go along with the mask requirements any more.
People in Columbus have been talking about when the Mayor is going to lift the mandate and allow residents to enter buildings without masks–which has been the rule in most of the surrounding suburbs and in many other Ohio cities. If I were the Mayor, and had been in downtown Columbus today, I would be thinking about lifting the edict sooner rather than later. It doesn’t do any good to issue directives if they are going to be casually ignored, and it seems pretty clear that that is what is happening here. Trying to keep the mask mandate in place when people are routinely ignoring it is fighting a losing battle–and what politician wants to do that?
Yesterday the B.A. Jersey Girl, the Bus-Riding Conservative, and I went out for a “taco Thursday” lunch. As has been the case since September, we faithfully donned masks when we entered the restaurant, wore them until we sat down, were served by masked employees, and donned masks again for the brief period between leaving our table and reaching the outside sidewalk. After we removed the masks again, we wondered: when is the City of Columbus mask mandate going to end? When are we going to get back to what we used to think of as “normal”?
Across the country, there are signs that society is on the cusp of what we might call the Great Reopening, with some states lifting their mask mandates and changes being made to vaccination requirements and other COVID-related policies. But it’s pretty clear that there is a very strong difference of opinion about whether a Great Reopening right now, or even in the immediately foreseeable future, is a good idea. The Atlantic recently ran an interesting article called “Open Everything” that argued–persuasively, in my opinion–that it is time to end all COVID restrictions. The reaction to the article on social media showed, however, that there is a sharp divide about what to do, and when. And the opinions on both sides are being voiced in the strongest terms possible, with reopeners being depicted as reckless morons who are putting lives at risk and non-reopeners presented as crazed Karens who revel in the ability to control every aspect of our lives and want to preserve that power.
The country has been through a lot since COVID first entered the lexicon two years ago, and superheated rhetoric about what to do next isn’t going to help us get over that experience. There’s nothing wrong with people expressing their views, but it sure would be nice to see the differences discussed in a reasonable and respectful way, with some effort to understand the differing views and without the inflammatory epithets. That’s part of the true “normal” that we need to get back to, and demonizing people of opposing viewsas killers or lunatics isn’t going to help us reach that goal.
The problem with Americans is that too many of us are couch potatoes who sit pretty much all day, at work and at home. And prior research has shown that constant sitting is just not good for your health. People who don’t exercise are far more likely to struggle with obesity and have inactivity-related medical conditions that lead to premature deaths that could have been prevented with more exercise. A 2020 study of 44,000 adults in the United States and Europe, for example, found that “the most sedentary men and women in the study, who sat almost all day, were as much as 260 percent more likely to die prematurely as the most highly active people studied, who exercised for at least 30 minutes most days.”
The study published in JAMA Internal Medicine is admittedly speculative, and put the metadata into a statistical model that sought to determine what would happen if people simply walked briskly for an additional 10, 20, or 30 minutes each day. The model showed an anticipated direct cause and effect between more exercise and fewer early deaths.
Notably, the study was based on pre-pandemic data, from what many of us fondly think of as the “normal” world. Obviously, though, its conclusions could be used to question the health impact of extended “shutdown” and “stay-at-home” orders that have the effect of preventing people from exercising. Sedentary lifestyles obviously significant health problems, and any public health care initiative that encourages such lifestyles cannot be viewed as risk-free. What’s past is past, but in the future, we need to remember that.
After months of wearing “business casual” in the office during this never-ending COVID/visual conference/work from home period, I’ve decided to make a change. Since the start of 2022, I’ve been donning a suit or sport coat, button-down shirt, and tie on work days, which means I’m once again using the dry cleaner bag after a long dry spell.
Why am I back to wearing traditional lawyer attire? Well, for one, I’m a cheapskate. I’ve got all of these perfectly good suits, shirts, and ties that have been literally gathering dust during the “everyday business casual” period, and I figure I might as well get some use out of them. Also, I realize that I actually kind of like the feel of a freshly laundered, lightly starched shirt, a well-knotted tie, and suit coat. It’s an outfit I wore on a daily basis for more than 30 years, and it feels good to go back to it. For that same reason, it’s a look that I associate with my profession, and wearing the outfit puts me in the frame of mind to do my job.
So these days when I get home I stash the used shirts in the dry cleaner bag again, we put the bag out on the front step on collection days, and we look for the shirts in the cellophane bag that the dry cleaner hangs from our front door after a visit. And when I select my button-down shirt for the day in the morning, remove it from its dry cleaner bag and paper sheath, and take off the plastic collar guard and the little clip that holds together the cuffs, it’s all part of the return to the old routines. Except that now, what was old feels new again.
The ’60s was when people first became concerned about television. Social scientists and commentators railed against the “idiot box” that was turning our brains to mush and converting formerly active, intelligent, inquisitive people into soft, slack-jawed shmoos soaking up whatever mind-numbing offering might appear on their TV set.
Those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow survived our constant exposure to the TV set that had a prominent place in our living rooms. But I’ve got news for you, folks: when it comes to TV, the ’60s was nothing compared to where we are right now. As The Hollywood Reporter noted yesterday, the number of English-language scripted TV shows that are available for viewing in the United States hit an all-time high last year. Across broadcast, cable, and streaming services, in 2021 559 English-language shows were available. That’s 13 percent more than in 2020 and 5 percent higher than the previous record in 2019. And consider this astonishing statistic reported in the THR article: “The total number of scripted shows has more than doubled in the last decade; in 2011 there were 266 scripted series.” What’s more, that 2021 record number doesn’t include any of the non-English-scripted shows that people are watching, like Squid Game or Money Heist.
In short, Americans are literally saturated with TV these days. Unlike the ’60s, when there were only three broadcast channels and one or two snowy UHF options, all of which terminated their broadcasts at some point in the early morning hours, you now could watch programming 24 hours a day, every day–and not even scratch the surface of what is available for viewing. And in the COVID era, it’s become increasingly easy to ditch the masks, slouch back on your couch, and immerse yourself in TV, rather than going out to do anything. I’m sure that part of what is driving the TV production boom is the fact that so many worried people are choosing to stay home rather than venture outside into the scary potential omicron infection zone. Rather than take that risk, why not just camp out and watch the latest hot streaming series?
As I mentioned, those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow avoided the confident predictions that we would become a bunch of brain-dead zombies–at least, I think we did– and hopefully that will prove true, again, in the aftermath of the current TV-soaked period. But it is concerning that TV shows have become such a huge part of our lives, to the point where our voracious appetite for programming is driving the TV production industry to new heights. We’d all be better off if we decided to get off the couch now and then, turn off the TV or computer, and get outside to interact with other living human beings.
The initiators of the petition contend that, even after two years of various “stimulus” payments, the $2,000 monthly checks are needed because of uncertainty about what could happen if the government orders a new round of closures, if schools require remote learning, or if other disruptive events occur. The article linked above quotes the initiators of the petition as saying that signers are trying to send a message: “‘We just need certainty. We need to have something we can plan on month after month.’”
In short, for some people what began as an effort to help individuals and businesses while the country dealt with the economic shock of the initial, purportedly short-term “flatten the curve” shutdowns, through “stimulus” checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, and readily available business loans, has morphed into a quest for guaranteed, federally funded monthly income that would apparently extend into the indefinite future. When you reach that point, it can’t reasonably be called a “stimulus” payment anymore–unless you accept that our economy now is in need to constant “stimulation,” like a Frankenstein’s monster that is forever being zapped with high-voltage electricity in order to keep going. And such a budget-busting monthly payment obviously would have significant inflationary effects and other long-term consequences for the economy generally and the labor market specifically.
An interesting point is that the primary stated reason for the requested monthly checks is the impact of governmental decisions, like closure orders and requirements for virtual schooling from home, on individuals and families. Perhaps the real lesson from the petition isn’t that some people would like to continue to get governmental checks–that’s really no surprise–it is that governmental entities need to think twice about consequences before issuing new sweeping and disruptive orders after two years of COVID edicts.
We had a great vacation in St. Lucia over the holidays, but boy–traveling these days isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not talking about spending long hours in a mask, either. There is so much uncertainty about pretty much everything, plans can change on a dime, and you’ve got to be willing to endure some stress and be quick about making alternative arrangements if necessary.
Here are some of the things that make travel so difficult:
Departure COVID tests — Many overseas destinations, like St. Lucia, require them. Some people have experienced long lines to get tested; that was not a problem for us (we took one of the self-administered tests at the CVS drive-through pharmacy). Other than the basic unpleasantness of the test itself–I always think of the Vinnie Barbarino comment from the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”–the main issue for us was trying to time the test to provide the results in time to meet the reporting requirements while also falling within the three days of departure time period. If you’re getting ready to travel, you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time checking your phone for results.
Flight cancellations — There were a lot of flight cancellations over the holidays, and you wonder how long the cancellation problems will continue. The cancellations seem totally random and unpredictable, and the airlines tend to rebook you as if there is no problem (or schedule disruption, or cost) iinvolved in your staying longer somewhere. We lucked out and didn’t experience a cancellation, but our travel partners did and had to stay an extra day. Fortunately, it didn’t mess up their plans too much. If you’re traveling, I’d recommend building a potential “cancellation day” into your travel plans.
Return COVID tests — In my view, the return COVID test is a lot more troubling than the departure test, especially if you are overseas. There are lots of reports of fully vaccinated people who faithfully followed mask rules and maintained prudent social distancing and still tested positive. Once that happens, even if you are asymptomatic, you’re looking at multiple days of quarantine, and in some places you apparently have to go to a special quarantine facility. When your departure test comes back negative, it is an enormous relief.
The condition of airports — Admittedly, our return flights yesterday probably were on one of the peak days of the holiday travel season. Still, the conditions were pretty grim. There not only were long lines, documentation issues, and lots of trying to understand what masked people were saying, but when we reached the U.S. the conditions at the Miami airport were pretty pathetic. Trash cans were full to the point of overflowing, lots of eating places seemed to be closed, and the restrooms didn’t exactly pass the white glove treatment. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that one of the levels of hell is eternity spent in a men’s restroom in a busy American airport during a hectic holiday travel day. I found myself wondering if the conditions were due to staffing shortages, which seems to be a problem with a lot of places right now.
We don’t have any travel on the horizon in the immediate future, and that’s probably a good thing. Perhaps, in a few months, the craziness will subside a bit
Our trip to St. Lucia was the first time we’ve been out of the United States since the COVID pandemic turned the world topsy-turvy. It was interesting to see how a different country was dealing with the issues presented by a pandemic that still lingers after two years.
St. Lucia is one of those countries that requires a lot of documentation before you can enter. That’s totally understandable: it’s an island nation, and its health care facilities could be overwhelmed if there was a bad outbreak. The necessary paperwork includes vaccination cards and booster cards, on-line submission of travel authorization forms that have to be approved by the St. Lucia travel office, and proof of a negative COVID test that was taken within three days of your departure date. The three-day test and travel authorization approval can create some friction. You hope to get the test results quickly enough to transmit them to the travel office in plenty of time to get the approval.
In our case, we didn’t get the test results until the day before our departure and then hit a snag when the travel office asked us to retransmit data only a few hours before our early morning flight was scheduled to leave. That required us to do some scrambling at the airport, by calling the travel office to ask them to look at the resubmitted data and send a new authorization approval so that the airline could print it out on paper and we could take it as part of our packet of documentation. That started off our trip with a jolt of stress, but fortunately, thanks to the help of a friendly woman at the St. Lucia travel office, the very nice people behind the counter at American Airlines, and the fact that my uptight traveler ways caused us to get to the airport very early, we got the paperwork done and were on our way.
When we arrived in St. Lucia, we had to present all of our materials–vaccination and booster cards, printed travel authorization approval form, and negative test results–in the new first step of the arrival process. We waited in long lines as nurses wearing full COVID-proof garb, including face shields, went through the paperwork for each traveler and carefully examined the various materials. If you passed muster and were fully vaccinated, as we were, you were given a plastic wrist bracelet just like the kind you would get at an amusement park and told to wear it during your entire time in St. Lucia. (I’m not sure what was done with the unvaccinated.) Then, with bracelets on, we were directed to a different line for different officials to review our passports and other entrance forms.
On our drive from the airport to Ti Kaye we didn’t see any locals wearing masks or bracelets. At our resort, however, the staff always was masked, and the rule was for guests to wear masks in common areas, such as when you were entering the restaurants for lunch or dinner. At the upper restaurant, our wrist temperatures were taken and logged in a book whenever we showed up for breakfast and dinner, so somewhere there is a fulsome record of my temperature on each day of our stay. No one wore masks on the beach or poolside, and temperatures weren’t taken at the seaside grille where we had lunch.
The morning of the day before our departure we had another COVID test taken, by a nurse on site at Ti Kaye, and then got a document attesting that we had tested negative. We took that to the airport when we left. At the airport, we had our temperatures taken again and had to fill out an additional form attesting that we had tested negative, and then presented the airline desk with all of the paperwork (including our vaccination cards) in order to get our boarding passes. Whether it was the time involved in paperwork review or just the holiday travel crush, the airport featured long lines, and even though we got to the airport more than two hours before the flight we just barely caught our plane. When we finally got back to Columbus, early this morning, we breathed a sigh of relief and finally cut off our bracelets.
In short, if you’re traveling internationally, be prepared to jump through a few extra hoops, endure some stress, and pay careful attention to the paperwork requirements. And give yourself some extra time at the airport!