Executives around the world who rapidly overhauled operations when the coronavirus struck, and the politicians who made them do it, are now focused on restarting the economy and their own businesses. That restart, according to interviews with leaders across a range of industries, suggests that “back to normal” will be anything but.

The re-emergence over the coming weeks and months will be fitful, fragile and partial – and a bit dystopian, with frequent temperature checks, increased monitoring of employees and customers, and, potentially, blood tests to determine whether workers have likely immunity to the virus. Officials and business leaders predict that operations won’t fully return to normal until an effective vaccine hits the market, estimated to be at least a year away.

Some firms may bring office workers back in alternating groups to allow for social distancing in open-plan offices. Restaurant chains may operate at half capacity, installing plexiglass shields between booths, while stores may do away with tester cosmetics and sanitize items after customers try them on. Major League Baseball has discussed a season with no spectators, held in a part of the country where it can essentially sequester players for weeks at a time.

In many ways, companies are at the mercy of local and national governments to ensure that the reopening doesn’t reinvigorate the virus. Large-scale testing and tracing programs will become the norm, placing the average person under much greater scrutiny by the state.

The U.S. federal government has yet to launch a national test-and-trace strategy to find and isolate virus carriers and their contacts, although some state governments are discussing it. Many other developed countries are putting such programs at the heart of their efforts to keep the virus under control, using technology to identify those at risk of infection.

Companies themselves have a role to play, and many are laying plans to do their part. Dozens of companies have notified the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that they are developing tests that indicate whether someone has had – and is likely immune to – the coronavirus, though some early efforts have hit roadblocks.

“Testing capacity, which we still have to develop, that is going to be the bridge from where we are today to the new economy in my opinion,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “It’s going to be a testing-informed transition to the new economy.”

Major airlines are discussing the feasibility of having passengers submit to temperature checks before boarding flights. It isn’t yet clear whether airlines or airport security would shoulder that task. Customers contacted by American Airlines say they think the crisis will abate within three to six months, with half of customers surveyed saying they’d consider flying again about six weeks after the virus dissipates.

Manufacturers have redrawn factory floor plans and implemented processes, such as staggering shift workers or asking employees to take turns eating lunch in their cars to avoid cafeteria crowding, practices that may become standard as more plants come back online.

Employers with large office-bound workforces are thinking about ways to bring employees back without spreading contagion. Some firms may bring office workers back in waves to keep numbers low or encourage employees to work from home a few days a week in rotation to allow for “de-densification.”

Outside of work, rituals like dinner and a movie or shopping trips will resume, although in vastly changed form. Venues will likely add a new shift to sanitize after janitors finish cleaning venues post-events, and cashless transactions and protective shields at all points of purchase will become the norm, experts say. Food and merchandise will be sold as grab-and-go.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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