By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

I’m sheltering at our summer home deep in 15 acres of undeveloped woods in the middle of an Indian reservation. We would seem to be as insulated and safe as people can be during this pandemic. But our lives are rife with uncertainty.

We’re not welcome here at the moment. Summer residents have been asked to stay away. The tribe’s grocery store, gas station and boat ramps are closed to seasonal visitors. Folks are afraid. There hasn’t been a case of the virus yet on the reservation. But should it show up, it wouldn’t take much to overwhelm the small health care system here.

We live for our guests, starting with our family and quickly transitioning to friends. Will any of them be able to visit? Will any of our kids be comfortable sharing a home with us, who are among the most vulnerable? And whatever anyone decides, what will be the long-term outcome of those decisions?

Who can know? Who can say?

Ever the same?

Most people are probably wondering: Will things ever be the same as they were?

Not likely – at least not before a Covid-19 vaccine is developed and near-universally administered.

In the meantime, it’s getting ever more clear that we are going to be dealing with a lot of changes in our lives even as we see fewer and fewer restrictions on the way we live.

Across the U.S. and around the world, national, regional and local governments are trying to discern how to shape extended responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

So are all of us as individuals.

What’s a country or a state or a city – or just me and my family – to do?

Some leaders are looking at the number of cases and deaths and engaging in contingency planning.

If the numbers decline for a certain period of time, they will open up more of their economies and ease restrictions on the size of groups that can gather. But if the numbers surge, they will tighten restrictions on economic and social activities.

Other leaders are more focused on measures of economic health: sales tax revenues, unemployment and the like.

Still others seem more focused on political pressures. If enough of their constituencies complain about restrictions, they’ll cast the rules aside and let the chips fall where they will.

Meanwhile, individuals are trying to decide how to handle the threat – if they have a choice.

Not all can choose

Many don’t. Emergency medical personnel, first responders, some drivers – be they pizza delivery folks or long-haul truckers -- warehouse workers, grocery, pharmacy and liquor store personnel, key service personnel and others have to show up at work or risk losing their jobs.

Social media are rife with disputes about whether or not to open churches, bars and restaurants, flower shops and hair salons, any sort of small business or sidewalk concession. More argue about whether or not to require people to wear masks, and whether or not to wear them if they’re not required.

There really aren’t any protocols or precedents to guide anyone – president, prime minister, governor, mayor or main provider.

And yet, people are deciding – at least from moment to moment.

People reticent

In the U.S. it’s clear that some government entities are opening faster than their constituencies are comfortable with.

For example, according to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, about two in three adults are saying it will not be safe for groups of 10 or more to gather before July. Only one in five think it is safe now, and one-quarter of people say it won’t be safe until sometime in 2021.

In a similar poll in mid-April, 51 percent of all Americans said they thought gatherings of 10 or more people would be safe by the end of June.

As regards opening up restaurants, stores and other businesses, 58 percent think what their state is doing is appropriate, while 20 percent say they are not restrictive enough and 21 percent say they are too restrictive.

That compares with late-April data which showed that 66 percent said their own states’ restrictions were appropriate, whole 16 percent said they were not restrictive enough and 17 percent called them too restrictive.

Slow recovery

Despite vast differences in the way states are handling their restrictions, the survey suggests that economic activity will lag behind whatever easing occurs. Just because activities are permitted does not mean people will engage in them.

Some will, of course. But until everyone goes back to their prior levels of participation on all sectors of the economy, it will not fully recover. Expect those in higher risk categories – especially those over 60 years of age, who represent about 20 percent of the U.S. population and about 11 percent of the global population – to hold back on participating in the economy at levels before the pandemic.

Another recent poll shows that 86% believe people should maintain 6’ of separation, 80% think people should wear masks, 78% say people should stay home if at all possible, and 75% agree that contact with friends you don’t live with should be avoided.

None of that indicates a “return to normal” is coming soon.

Meanwhile, of course, there is the distinct possibility that current steps to open up economic and social interaction will trigger surges in cases and deaths – in which case at least some government leaders will reinstate at least some restrictions.

Uneven impact

Just as the virus has demonstrably different impacts on different age groups, so too has the impact on organizations and individuals been diverse and uneven.

Some businesses are thriving; many more are languishing. Many are closed and some of those are not likely to ever reopen. Unemployment is at record levels even while some people are working overtime.

Walmart stores typically have waiting lines outside as management enforces social distancing, while churches in most of the U.S. and some other countries are closed. Where they are open, a host of restrictions are in place in the hope of preventing – but certainly mitigating the risk of – widespread contagion.

Of course, no one knows how effective any of the mitigating steps really are.

Decisions, decisions

All of us are flying at least a bit blind as we decide what we will do and where and when we will do it.

  • Will you continue to stay at home as much as possible?
  • Will you limit shopping trips to only absolute essentials, and then only once a week or two?
  • Will you continue working at home if you can?
  • Will you begin looking for a job that permits you to stay at home, exercise more discretion about your work, permit you to feel safer, pay better or give you more flexibility?
  • If you own a business, under what circumstances will you reopen it?
  • If you own or manage a workplace, what precautions will you provide for workers when you do reopen?
  • Will you attend weekend Mass as soon as that option is available, or will you wait until there are more indications that it is safe to do so?
  • How has this pandemic affected your relationship to your church – are you still donating, under what circumstances if any will you resume your prior level of activity in your parish?
  • If there is a choice in the fall, will you permit your children to return to school? What contingencies will affect your decision when a new school term begins?
  • Under what circumstances will you congregate when group gatherings are permitted again?

We all have a ton of decisions to make as the year moves toward its mid-point and then heads into the home stretch.

Pray, communicate

My advice is to pray often for guidance. Pray, too, for those who are suffering and suffering losses, and those who are at particular risk so long as the virus continues to prowl.

Pray even more often in gratitude for the life you have, no matter how it happens to be constricted at the moment. Discuss things with your spouse, other family members and friends -- and listen not just to their opinions but to the reasons they have for holding them.

Recognize that circumstances change – often very quickly and radically. Keep abreast of the factors that you have considered in your decision-making, and adjust your decisions as circumstances change.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. And remember that the most important part of communicating is listening.

Live one day at a time. As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 6:34: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

Lastly, but certainly not least important, take some comfort and joy in your faith. You’re in good hands. God’s got this.