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Sunday blog: The thing about these new forming habits, they may be hard to break later

Commentary by Tracy McCue, Sumner Newscow — Habits are hard things to break – including new-forming ones.

A Wellington business owner once told me how much the late 1990s Washington Avenue downtown renovation project hurt his business.  He said during the year of construction when many of his customers couldn’t get to his store, they learned new habits. They started shopping elsewhere. When the street re-opened some of those customers didn’t return. 

That’s one of my biggest fears with the coronavirus pandemic. We are forming new stay-at-home habits. Who knows what this is going to do for the overall health of our economy?

Had this pandemic occurred 50, 20 or even 10 years ago, it would have meant a complete shutdown of our economy. The country would have been more decimated – at least in the short run. But in the long run? I’m not so sure. During yesteryear, had the pandemic ended, the economy would have gotten back on its feet and returned back to its previous normal because we would have had no other choice.

Today? I’m not so sure.

I believe we have been doing an excellent job of keeping the economy going considering the circumstances.  But when this pandemic is over I can’t help but think, we may also have a harder time bringing our economy back to scale. Why? Because we’ve been social distancing long before coronavirus was in our economy. Now that we are perfecting the skill of social distancing to an art form, it may be hard to turn the clock back.

We are forming new habits.

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For me, the coronavirus really hasn’t changed a lot of what I do. Yes, I don’t have a baseball/softball game to cover. The city council is quarantining itself and I’ll be covering the meeting at home. The coronavirus has even quieted down the bad guys. The police blotter has been getting smaller as the days go by.

But essentially the nuts and bolts of my job have gone unchanged. Since 2011 when I started this website, the Cueball office is basically a laptop computer, a couple of monitors and a printer. My camera is nearby in case one of you decides to crash your car into another. And, oh, yeah, the smartphone is next to me – or lost someplace in the creases of the living room sofa.

Had I been working at a newspaper years ago, a quarantine would have been nearly impossible. When I moved here in 1992, the Wellington Daily News had 15 full-time employees and everyone was very busy producing a five-days-a-week publication. It was an assembly line of people getting you that newspaper at 3 p.m. every afternoon.

I’m convinced we would have had to break every quarantine protocol in the book or shut down the newspaper entirely had the pandemic hit then. And in the days of pre-Internet, shutting down the paper would have been unthinkable with COVID-19 on the loose.

Today, I can do about everything those 15 employees could do with the assistance of a few people I rarely see — not because I’m a wonderfully productive person, but because technology allows me to do so. The pandemic can be reported from the safety of my home. No social distancing violations here.

My home-based newspaper business is the norm. The days of a big news office, unless you work at the New York Times, are gone.

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Technology has changed the world. We have the ability to work either at home or to the far-reaching ends of the earth. We can have conference calls that include people from New Zealand, Guam, or Ethiopia and communicate as if we are all sitting around the same conference table drinking the same bad coffee and eating artery-clogging donuts.

As I’m writing this, I’m looking over at my son, who is on his smartphone, watching some inane YouTube video. How has this changed in the past five years?

Remember 20 years ago when Wellington seemed to have a teenage pregnancy epidemic? That’s really become a thing of the past or at least something we don’t talk about anymore. Kids don’t have to touch one another. They have their phones.

Today we have online shopping. Amazon.com is now the biggest retailer in the world. We no longer need cable because we can stream video content in our homes. The restaurant business has been in trouble for several years now because people are no longer needing to dine in. Computer apps like Grubhub emphasize take-out orders.

As for myself, when my wife is in Wichita working and my kids are in school, oftentimes I’ll look up at a clock and it says 3 p.m. and I’ll realize I still haven’t seen another human being.

I don’t feel lonely. I’m usually busy and connected. There are various ways to communicate with another person via texting, messaging, e-mail, video conferencing, Facebook and phone calls. I don’t necessarily need to come face-to-face with people to do an interview. I can find something to eat in the refrigerator for lunch.

And I know there are thousands if not millions of home-based business people throughout the world doing the same thing. A recent Gallop survey found that 43 percent of Americans work from home occasionally and 5.2 percent of U.S. workers completely work at home.

We’ve essentially been social distancing for years.

So while this pandemic social distancing may seem radical, I’d venture to say it really isn’t.

And this is what worries me. If we are forced to social distance at such a rate for a significant length of time as this pandemic requires, then when it is all over, we will have learned a new habit — this new normal of isolation. Employers will have discovered we no longer need full-time employees. In turn, we, the consumers, will have learned that going out and spending money isn’t necessary – if we have money to spend.

We may be forming new habits – perhaps for the worse.

This pandemic may have long-reaching consequences long after the threat of coronavirus is over.

The game is changing before our very eyes.

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