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Coronavirus Summer

What the new normal will look like for families with kids in the weeks ahead.
by Jim Swift
May 22, 2020
Coronavirus Summer

We’ve all gone a little stir crazy during COVID-19, if we’re being honest. Some people I know have decamped from their cramped urban dwellings to return to their native homesteads in places like rural Maine and small-town Ohio.

That’s understandable. Our bigger cities were not designed for people to live at home twenty-plus hours a day. When I graduated from college a dozen years ago and was hired as a Senate staffer, I rented a basement apartment. It had its own bathroom and a makeshift kitchen (albeit one in without any built-in cooking or refrigeration devices). I paid $800 a month for that 600-square-foot space, and would not want to live there today in these days of social distancing. But check out these ten cities, any of which I’d absolutely live in, where you can today find entire homes with monthly mortgage costs around or under $800.

We should all be cautiously optimistic about the fact that, at the national level, the rate of new COVID-19 cases is slowing. It’s too early to break out the firecrackers—or the champagne and fancy cheese platters, if that’s more your style—since the national trends can change and since local and regional outbreaks could still get worse even if the national figures continue to go down.

Businesses that were closed for a month or two may now be unlocking their doors and turning their lights back on, and some governors may be encouraging their states’ citizens to resume old routines. But anyone who expects the old normal to return anytime soon should give up on that notion.

One way to think about how abnormal the next several months will be is to consider the activities that will likely be available for families with children this summer. The decisions these families make will have ripple effects throughout the economy.

Working parents who were counting on summer camp, vacation Bible school, or similar activities—either to edify their kids or just keep them occupied—will probably need other plans: Cancellations are rampant.

Parades or concerts for Memorial Day? Many across the country have been canceled or scaled way back. And even though Independence Day is still six weeks away, many cities have already canceled their July 4 parades and fireworks shows.

Want to visit a museum or a kid-friendly science center? The Smithsonian museums in Washington are closed. So is the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. So is the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. So is the wonderfully geeky Museum of Mathematics in New York. The list goes on and on. Some of these places may start to reopen in the weeks ahead, perhaps by offering timed tickets to help ensure that groups of visitors can keep physical distance between one another—arrangements that will require staff retraining. But as of now, you can’t count on it.

Public libraries are slowly starting to reopen across the country, but with social-distancing guidelines in place many kid-friendly activities are canceled.

Zoos may start to reopen—officials at the St. Louis Zoo, for instance, said this week that it will open in June, using timed tickets—although most haven’t made announcements yet. Aquariums, too, would presumably need to impose strict attendance limits: Anyone who has ever milled around the tanks in a too-crowded aquarium will not want to repeat that experience in these days of COVID-claustrophobia.

Many public playgrounds are closed indefinitely (although it’s not unusual to see parents and kids walking right past the “Closed” signs to have some fun).

Amusement parks, including the big ones like the Disney parks, are still figuring out what to do. Many of them will have to thoroughly reconfigure their operations in order to function profitably.

What about touring carnival companies? The industry has been thrown into utter chaos—poke around this directory to see all the cancellations and tentative reschedulings—which makes sense: The economics of this kind of entertainment requires really packing people in. It’s hard to imagine many parents this summer risking crowds just for the pleasure of Ferris wheels, bumper cars, tilt-a-whirls, teacup rides, midway games, and funnel cake.

Beaches and boardwalks are starting to reopen, as are national parks, which makes sense: Social distancing is easier outdoors. (It’s fascinating to read the account of what the first few days have been like at Yellowstone since it reopened.)

What about movie theaters? The math doesn’t look good for them: If your average theater can seat 200-300 people per screen, it’s just not going to be profitable to cut that number by at least 40 percent so that moviegoers can comply with social-distancing guidelines (even though, yes, those guidelines will vary wildly by jurisdiction). That doesn’t even take into account the added operational costs of stepped-up cleaning and protective equipment for theater employees. And that is even assuming that customers will want to return to movie theaters under present conditions.

Many movies have had their openings postponed or have shifted over to digital releases, and some of the kid-friendly movies with stream-for-pay releases have reportedly done well. (For grownup movies, the canary in the coal mine—the one big theatrical release expected between now and mid-July—has been Tenet, the mysterious-looking new film from Christopher Nolan. But when the latest trailer for Tenet dropped last night, the planned release date of July 17 was noticeably not mentioned. Not that long ago, some movie execs were suggesting that if Tenet fails or is moved back, there will be no theatrical releases until Christmas.)

It’s worth taking a moment to look closely at another staple of summer fun: local pools. Where I used to live in Alexandria, Virginia, we had a humble 3.5-foot pool for our 400-unit high-rise. My former neighbors told me recently that they saw the pool getting filled and were hopeful they would soon have a chance to get outside of their shoebox condos and soak up some sun.

Alas, that pool is not likely to reopen. If you live in an area with any urban density, and your local pool’s owners (or your homeowners’ association or local health department or other relevant decision-makers) are any bit responsible, you’re probably not going to do much swimming in the near future.

Yes, the pool itself, treated with chlorine, is likely to be safe. But once you get out of the water? Local guidelines will likely require that pools’ common areas—like changing rooms and poolside furniture—be subject to regular deep cleanings. There will likely also be rules about distancing, with limits on changing-room occupancy and furniture physically spaced out, both of which would reduce the number of people who could use the pool at any given time.

The lifeguard can’t watch the pool and do a deep clean of common areas. Pool operators would have to hire more staffers, or they might even have to find a cleaning company willing to accept potential liability and able to perform the work as prescribed. Maybe every few hours.

Speaking of lifeguards: Many lifeguards in big cities are foreigners here on a visa. (This is so common that the website of the State Department’s Summer Work Travel Program is illustrated with a photo of a lifeguard.) But visa services have largely been suspended.

A logical response is, Well, since local kids already are out of school, we can just have our neighborhood kids step up, right?

Not so fast. No reputable pool management firm is going to just throw jobs at untrained kids, assuming they’d work for the same price as those here on a visa. Liability is a major factor and, thus, training is the big concern. And lifeguard training under COVID-19 conditions can be tricky, as a park official in Springfield, Missouri explained: “We’re not able to provide training because it does require contact in the pools. . . . It’s not realistic for lifeguard training to not touch each other. You have to prove you can pull out a body.”

Besides, will parents allow their kids to become lifeguards during a pandemic? If a lifeguard is wearing a mask, how would he or she blow a whistle or yell at kids who are running? (More superficially, will American teenagers want the mask equivalent of a farmer’s tan on their faces? How will they Instagram or TikTok? Has SkyMall made a tan-thru mask yet? Do teens even know what SkyMall is?)

We should want a science-informed balance of reopening the economy and protecting the vulnerable. But when it comes to the economics, people will vote with their feet. They may complain about things like pool closures, but one can hope they’ll consider the figure they’re paying in HOA dues for a pool in maintenance mode a steal compared to the much costlier reality of what it’d take to reopen it and comply in a safe way with state and local health directives.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.