Corona-versay Reflections Part 2: 10 Pandemic Innovations that should Outlast the Virus

They say the most successful coping strategy for a time of unrest or distress is to find the positives in the trauma. With COVID-19, that’s been difficult to do. People have been trapped in their homes for over a year, almost three million people have died worldwide (with over 500,000 deaths in the US alone), countless others have been impacted by grief and economic suffering. Mental health has deteriorated across the board, and a general sense of listlessness descended upon us all during the cold, snowy months of this past winter.

Businesses of all sizes have had to fight to stay afloat amid strict lockdowns. Many have closed their doors permanently or downsized significantly under the weight of lack of business and fear for the safety of staff and patrons alike. Thousands of people have been laid off or furloughed. Eviction moratoriums are the only thing between thousands of families and homelessness. There is indubitably an impending secondary health crisis of undiagnosed illnesses that would have been discovered in routine medical care over the past year. Things in this pandemic were not great, to say the least.

It’s not all bad, though.

A few of the innovations businesses and individuals have come up with to cope with these once-in-a-decade hardships have been really great and should continue as the pandemic comes to a close and some semblance of new normalcy descends upon us.

Part A: Food, Drink, Shopping

1. Increased Outdoor Dining

Humans are social creatures and are absolutely not built for lives of isolation away from other humans. People were mostly able to hunker down for the early weeks of the pandemic, through the second half of March and the entire month of April, but by the time summer (and summeresque late-spring) rolled around, the snarl of cabin fever and vitamin D deficiencies started to intensify. People wanted to go outside.

Now, people have been going outside in the summer time since before there was an indoors to hang out in, but modern society is a decidedly inside one. Bars and restaurants that had been forced to shut down entirely in the early days of the pandemic saw this desire for increased togetherness and fresh air as an opportunity. Cities revised zoning rules to allow qualifying businesses to bring their service to the streets and sidewalks. Even in places like New York City where sidewalk space is at a premium already just accommodating pedestrians, restaurants expanded beyond their four walls. And, like the Field of Dreams, people came.

There’s something remarkably pleasant about dining and drinking al fresco, even in a city as dirty as New York. I hope cities allow it and restaurants continue to invest in increased outdoor dining. I know for myself, I will always pick outside over inside on a nice day. Basking in the sun is one of my favorite hobbies, after all.

2. Open Carry of Alcohol/To Go Cocktails

Along with increasing outdoor dining options, many restaurants that either did expand into the great outdoors or were unable to do so increased their takeout and delivery options. My particular favorite innovation in this space were to-go cocktails.

Some bars allowed customers to walk out with plastic cups and straws full of sweet cocktails that everyone has been missing since the shut down of ‘nightlife’ as we know it. Other bars took things one step further by bottling their to-go cocktails and labeling them for optimal portability and free advertising. I enjoyed both very much.

I have long found the prohibition of to-go cocktails to be frustrating, and I hope that this invention continues through the end of the pandemic and into the rest of our lives.

3. QR Code Menus

I’ll be honest, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent very little time thinking about the cleanliness of menus used in sit-down restaurants. Their laminated surfaces seemed clean enough and were easy enough to wipe down, I suspected, that I didn’t consider that they were likely a cesspool of disease rivaling paper money.

Enter Coronavirus and real, desperate fear of viral transmission through droplets on objects. Just as people started to sanitize their groceries and Amazon packages, into the trash went those laminated (and even freshly-printed paper) menus. Even though many were not avoid users of QR codes prior to the pandemic, they are now a ubiquitous tool for directing people to information, including web page and pdf menus at restaurants.

There are a million reasons why this is a great idea, not least of which is the fact that menus are filthy. First, they require a virtual copy of the menu which is typically available online. I have a pretty substantial dietary restriction (I miss you, gluten!) and being able to review a menu before I choose to dine out is really helpful. It’s also great for restaurants — particularly those appealing to the foodie crowd, as chefs and restauranteurs would then have the ability to update their menus with changing tastes or seasonal produce.

4. Curbside Pickup & Delivery

While the impetus for the expansion of both of these features among restaurants and stores was enforcing social distancing during the pandemic, curbside and delivery are among the most convenient updates. Curbside pickup is a lot like retail’s answer for drive through and will be a game changer for working families as we return to some semblance of normalcy.

As a New Yorker for the last ten years, I’ve been spoiled about the amount of things I can delivered to me in thirty minutes or less. More things delivered to more people from more industries can’t be bad!

Part B: Health

5. Masks When Sick

As recently as January 2020, I heard jokes made about the tradition of certain East Asian cultures to wear surgical masks in public. I’m sure many of us have had or overheard similar conversations pondering how difficult it might be to walk around with a mask on all day long in public spaces — we’ve all since eaten our words.

While masks all the time may get a bit tiresome for social creatures like human beings, the power of face coverings cannot be understated in disrupting the spread of disease. It’s no coincidence that we’ve essentially avoided a flu season this year with mask mandates all over the country to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. People wearing masks in public — specifically places like stores and public transit — would go a long way to disrupt the spread of regular illnesses like colds and flu. A simple behavior that is second nature to us all these days could go a long way to improving the quality of life for us all.

6. Ability to take off of work for “mild” illness

I’m a teacher, and I think I speak for the entire profession when I say there is little that strikes the same kind of existential dread as needing to call out for a doctor’s appointment or illness for the sub plans alone. American culture and the ever-present Protestant Work Ethic values working to the point of exhaustion and then continuing to push just a little bit more. Taking days off for one’s physical health is frowned upon and reserved for only the most severe and communicable illnesses. Taking a day off for mental health? Forget about it.

Fear of COVID-19 has caused the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction entirely. Low-grade fevers, coughs, and sniffles with no other symptoms that would normally have required presence at work suddenly became anathema and grounds for a day off. Businesses of all sizes expanded PTO and sick time for the pandemic to keep everyone safe, proving that it was a possibility the entire time.

People don’t spread communicable diseases if they are allowed to remain isolated during the course of their illnesses. We should never have been pushing ourselves so hard to work while sick to begin with! I hope that employers keep this same energy as the pandemic comes to a close and that employees are able to maintain their health by not working while sick!

7. Telehealth

The final entry in the health section of the COVID-19 innovations that should be brought into the rest of our lives are increased access to telehealth. Telehealth and remote medical services had been expanding before COVID, but the lockdowns and closures of medical offices really just caused the proliferation of these services to truly explode. Related to the above note about being able to take time off while sick or for routine medical care, doctor’s appointments are often put aside for those who work full-time and can’t get the time off to physically visit an office. Not all medical conditions require a physical doctor’s office visit. Being able to take an appointment from a computer or cell phone — from the office, home, or car (parked or passenger) is incredibly convenient and may help people manage long-term illnesses with more ease.

App-based health services have also sprung up, a convenient option for individuals with insufficient or nonexistent health insurance. These apps cover all types of niche medical care from urgent care (Plushcare), mental health care (TalkSpace, BetterHelp), birth control and sexual health (Nurx), gender-affirming care (Plume and Folx) and so much more. They are providing services to individuals in locations without specialists required to get the care they need. Expanded access can only be a good thing!

Part C: Social Consciousness

8. Engaged in Political and Social Causes

Political activists will tell you that it matters less how someone came by their political consciousness than what they do with it once they’ve gotten it. 2020 was a flashpoint for the broadening of political consciousness across the world. I believe that this was due, in part, to the fact that people had more time to become aware of major issues going on in our world without the distractions of commuting, social plans, traveling, hobbies, the gym, etc. etc. etc. I wish it was because knowing of the horrific things that happened to people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were enough spark people to action, but I think we all know that’s not true. Horrific things have been happening to Black and brown, queer and trans, unhoused and immigrant people the entire time. Let’s keep this energy toward equity and justice going as we return to a life with more distractions.

9. Mutual Aid Organizations

Another really positive addition to many peoples’ lives during the pandemic has been becoming active in local mutual aid organizations for the support of those less fortunate and more negatively impacted by the economic and health consequences of the disease. Mutual aid organizations sprang up in all kinds of communities, neighborhoods, and cities around the world. Many provided resource swaps, food banks, community libraries and gardens, among many other services for members of the community. Our country — and world more broadly — has over-prized individualism for hundreds of years. The pandemic brought back some level of collective and community consciousness that can only benefit our communities at large moving forward.

They say that a rising tide lifts all boats, but it goes even deeper than that. We know that governmental bureaucracy is the least efficient way to promote equity in our communities, and we should all do our part to support a more perfect union that benefits all.

Honorable Mention

10. TikTok

TikTok obviously existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a high school teacher, what I knew about TikTok was pretty limited to the dance trends my kids performed in my classroom during stolen moments between classes. I staunchly refused to download the app until the suffocating isolation of quarantine convinced me to give it a try.

For all the mindless entertainment that the app provides, it quality information is available as well. I have seen political organizing and social justice education accounts lay down facts in under a minute that academics struggle to elucidate in tomes. I have seen queer and trans people come to understand themselves better through the experiences of others. I have seen community grow and develop in the app that was impossible outside of it. TikTok can be toxic. The algorithm is racist, as most are, and there is always room for abuse in online spaces, but I think it’s worth it to keep and nurture community wherever it springs up.