Redesigning life after COVID-19

Josh Bruyning

Josh Bruyning

Guest Writer

At the time of writing this, it has been 64 days, 8 hours and 40 minutes since Governor Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order has taken effect. Minnesotans have primarily abided by these terms and have somewhat flattened the curve, buying ourselves a grand reopening of June 1. On that day, we will face the consequences of our collective choice to go back to work and to face the unknown future. It is each person’s responsibility to make life-altering decisions that will shape the society we become. Ultimately, the question is not when we should go back to work, but what kind of society we will be once we do reopen. How open are we to the concept of redesign?

It is not surprising that the seed of division has been sown and cultivated by increasing political partisanship. Both sides of the aisle seem to have become more out of touch with the public than ever. It is difficult to tell whether politicians have shaped society or the other way around; however, the public’s faith in our leaders has been eroded, perhaps irrevocably, by the effects of COVID-19.

What should have been a well-executed plan to eliminate COVID-19 has become a blatant political war during an election year. Protesters have stormed the gates of Michigan’s central government and business owners defy orders to remain closed. Each day, as congress plays its divisive role, the public grows restless. COVID-19 has brought these questions squarely into focus and, right on schedule, we are beginning to question authority.

The longer this disease ravages communities throughout the world, the more we look to ourselves for the answers. If your neighbor has fallen ill and died, your experience takes on the color of fear and you retreat into isolation. If death is a million miles away, you may opt to take more risks. Nevertheless, these experiences are simultaneously personal and communal.

Offices around the country have discovered that they can cut costs by downsizing physical space and allowing employees to work from home. This reassessment of the workspace has led to the concept of redesigning spaces and the question: what is necessary for business operations to remain profitable? The office of the future may very well resemble a spider with a small body from which virtual legs extend.

Working from home certainly redesigns the home. Children will contend with parents for space—more than usual. The dynamics between partners will also come into view under the issue of space. The couple whose bankbook remained anonymous will become visible when they decide who gets to use the bedroom as an office. For the first time for many family members, there will be places in their home where they cannot go.

Alternatively, perhaps families will successfully reassess their spaces and the professional sphere will change. Before COVID-19, it was not acceptable to take a child to work; they are loud and are generally destructive to the idea of professionalism. During COVID-19, it is common for children to WebEx bomb their parents as professionalism takes a hit, probably for the best. After COVID-19, perhaps we will do away with professionalism altogether—realizing that being a professional has nothing to do with job performance. For those who have built their lives in a suit and tie, jeans and ketchup stains will have to suffice.

As desperation grows, neighborhood businesses may collectively reopen without governmental consent. In a Facebook post to the Grand Avenue Neighborhoods United page, Shane Montoya writes, “While I completely understand and am an advocate for the open slow order from Walz, drastic times call for drastic measures.” Montoya co-owns The Odd Couple real estate firm with his husband, Jason Koenig, and plays a leading role in the Grand Avenue Business Association. He reflects a growing sentiment that conflicts with the governor of Minnesota.

Economic fears have forced businesses to enter a quasi-anarchist space even if owners do not have an anarchist bone in their bodies. It is the spirit of compromise that prevents them from tipping over. Minnesota is not Michigan, but it could easily devolve into an escalated conflict if Walz does not meet them halfway. Montoya goes on to say, “If the city is not creative and willing to take drastic measures, we are going to lose our restaurant industry.” We are not there yet, but a society where businesses sacrifice their livelihoods to civil obedience is right around the corner, even in our own plush “Grand Neighborhood.”

Regardless of when students can go back to school, current circumstances have already altered their lives. Policy has knocked conventional schooling out of its orbit as administrators rearrange their student bodies, inducting schools into the virtual economy.

Students have taken it upon themselves to make the most of their situation, as many define themselves rather than to allow fear to define them. The University of Minnesota College of Design student body, among others, have taken it upon themselves to contribute to the solution.

“The goal was to create a cheap and effective N-95 mask for healthcare workers,” says College of Public Health senior, Lydia Fess. “I don’t know much about the organization structure other than I’d seen a few professors involved.” Fess represents a different reaction, equally valid, of adaptability. Students may not suffer economically as business owners will and so they may compensate by fixing problems in their spare time. Their unique position in the community inherently relieves the pressure on our local communities, offsetting the effects of fear and pain in the days to come. Besides, there is much to be said about the enthusiasm and healthy shortsightedness of youth.

There is a grim underpinning to our new world and body counts will not represent it. It will come in the form of red-hot resentment against adaptation. Humans are remarkably resilient. (Some might say that resilience is the hallmark of our species.) Although we possess the ability to conform to almost any situation, Americans feel as though we should not have to adapt. We scorn the catalysts of change—of which COVID-19 is the imminent example. With the political issues it has raised, its economic impact will take a mental toll on all of us.

It will force us to accept a new society whether we like it or not. Families will have to reassign spaces, and it will not be fair; students will be forced to socialize almost exclusively through social media; and we will keep our children safe, whether it kills them socially or not. In the wake of stifling losses, we will be forced to work with insensitive individuals for whom death might be decades and miles away.

We do not know when it will be safe to go back to work but we know that we will have to.  We must decide today what kind of communities we will develop. The lives we are eager to return to, and the normalcy of everyday life as defined by our past, no longer exists and may never exist ever again. We must adapt; not because Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi or Governor Walz say we must, but because that’s life.