WRAL Investigates

Pandemic could eliminate aspects of daily routine forever

Posted September 21, 2020 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated September 22, 2020 4:20 a.m. EDT

— More than six months after the first coronavirus case was diagnosed in North Carolina, the pandemic continues to disrupt and reshape daily life. From work to eating to shopping, experts say the impact will likely last even after the virus is under control.

"We’re seeing behavior change, but it’s mainly happening in people who believe in the science," said Robyn Gershon, clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University's School of Global Public Health.

From the World Trade Center collapse aftermath, to the H1N1 flu to anthrax, Gershon has studied health disasters for years and how they change social behaviors both short and long term.

"Handshaking is interesting. During H1N1, a lot of people stopped shaking hands," she said, noting that it eventually made a comeback but that the current pandemic will likely have a larger impact.

"I think handshaking is on its way out well after this is over," she said.

Previous pandemics show us people can change forever. Before the 1918 flu pandemic, for example, covering up during a cough or sneeze wasn't a common practice, but it is now.

When Gov. Roy Cooper's coronavirus task force first met in March, the gathering was held indoors with no social distancing or masks. Now, with more knowledge about the virus, state leaders walk into briefings 6 feet apart and all wearing masks.

Gershon said she thinks the virus will change several things moving forward.

"[There are] other things that we can let go of that are not such a big deal, such as filling your water bottle at work on a communal water dispenser," she said.

The workplace will undergo major changes, she predicted. Open work spaces and shared touch surfaces – everything from computer keyboard, water fountains and coffee machines to elevator buttons and door knobs – may go away.

Likewise, shared food, whether it’s a buffet, free food samples at a store or even potluck-type dinners, could be a thing of the past.

Gershon said she also feels the pandemic could add something to American culture.

"If, after this is all over, especially during flu season, will Americans adopt face mask use like they do in Asian countries?" she wonders.

Despite studying several virus outbreaks, she said she never wore a mask in everyday life until now. But even three years from now, she said, she can see herself wearing a mask on the subway or in other crowded places during flu season.

The changes will not only affect daily life, it will help prepare society for the next pandemic, Gershon said.

"People in my field, we knew it was coming," she of the current pandemic. "It was inevitable, and it’s not going to stop."

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