"The New Normal." It's starting to become a rallying cry for a populace determined to find the silver lining in a global pandemic.
COVID-19 forced North Carolina to issue a Stay at Home order on March 30th originally set to last until April 29th.
Overnight, new digital trends came into vogue, and their alienness has since been replaced by a warming embrace. Coworkers compete for who can have the quirkiest Zoom backgrounds during meetings. Singles get wine drunk on FaceTime dates. Virtual happy hours have allowed me to grow closer to people who were only acquaintances before the virus.
It's attractive, the idea that COVID-19 can grow us, deepen us, and offer valuable new modes of connection. Even the phrase is pleasant. "New Normal," so alliterative and catchy, it could've come from a million dollar ad campaign's boardroom, or Skype meeting.
Grasping onto these emerging trends becomes even more necessary as state and local governments struggle against another growing voice: calls for the re-opening of business. Some social media circles have made a concerted effort to paint the #ReOpenNC movement as anything from entitled boomers to a foreign psyop campaign. But as another week passes and 4.4 million more people file for unemployment, the New Normal appears to be a vastly disparate experience.
All this as the scientific community suggests social distancing last until 2022. It's becoming apparent that governments will ease their restrictions before the scientific community is ready. This conflict, drawn across racial, economic, and political divides, will impact our economy as long as COVID-19 remains without a vaccine.
Do we hashtag reopen, or hashtag New Normal? Is there anything in the middle?
These questions will impact Charlotte's dining scene in a wide-reaching manner, where thousands of service industry workers and hundreds of small business owners have experienced layoffs and sinking sales.
In Charlotte's food scene, crowded dining rooms and bars have been replaced by curbside pickup, limited menus, and delivery through 3rd party platforms like Uber Eats and Doordash. But the numbers don't always add up.
“Those things are not very customer friendly," said Donald. They take 30%. I can’t afford to get into it. That 30% they take is what’s keeping people employed right now.”
Other owners struggle with how to translate their menu for curbside and delivery.
"[Bardo] is all about presentation," said Jayson Whiteside, managing partner and co-founder of Bardo in an interview with Inside 485. “It’s all based on the senses, the experiences. It’s the blueprint for Bardo.”
Both owners found ways to survive Stay at Home. Bardo pushed cocktail kits and home-style meals. Donald shifted operations at Sweet Lew's to Dish and began serving a limited menu. Both implemented curbside pickup. The goals are the same: keep as much staff employed as possible, minimize losses, and continue serving Charlotte great food.
But the New Normal might spell trouble even after Stay at Home has ended.
In a social media poll of 355 Inside 485 readers, 77% of people said they will be hesitant to go back into dining rooms after April 30th.
"15 days after being told to only shop wearing masks and gloves, I can't foresee sitting in a restaurant sans gloves and mask until there's a vaccine," said Twitter user @JonathanOsman.
"I'm pregnant so [I'm] staying in until I have my baby since I'm high risk," one Instagram user replied.
"Those numbers are really scary," said Whiteside. “We can’t force the public to be comfortable enough to go out to eat. People are scared and worried about the second wave of this happening."
Donald echoes those thoughts. "I hate to hear those numbers," he said. But he also noted that they may not be accurate to how people will actually behave.
"It’s a lot easier to say when you’re sitting at home and can’t go," he said. “No matter what new habits you pick up, you’re still not going to replace the Captain Crunch French Toast at Fahrenheit or the fried chicken at N.C. Red.”
“People don’t want that. We’re still a generation of people who don’t cook. We’re still a generation of people who don’t entertain at home.”
In our most optimistic moments, there are urges to treat COVID-19 as a teaching moment. The advocates for the New Normal would suggest this pandemic is something that won't destroy us, but will evolve us.
In a local dining scene, evolution under COVID-19 would dramatically change the dining room, long since viewed as integral to the restaurant experience. With a hypothetical 77% drop in visitors, dining rooms would have to shrink significantly if not disappear altogether.
What effect that would have is anyone's guess. Donald believes restaurants can't survive without dining rooms.
“I don’t think restaurants can afford to do things differently," Donald told me. "What we’re built on is comfort, ease. We’re built on birthdays and anniversaries and celebrations. You can’t take that away.”
As inter-neighborhood travel shrinks and family incomes stagnate, the role community plays in decisions to eat out will increase. Restaurants skilled at forming a familial feeling in their dining rooms are particularly equipped to have customers follow them into dining room-less experiments. Whiteside has seen it already.
“[The community that embraced us from the beginning], that’s the same people who are visiting our restaurant right now," he said.
Whiteside has also seen the business community rally as eateries like Mac's Speed Shop, Seoul Food Meat Co., and Kindred have reached out with ideas and support.
“They don’t have to do that. They have their own business, but they reached out in an effort to help us. It’s a great thing," he said.
North Carolina has seen the 7th largest increase in unemployment claims according to WalletHub. The spike comes from areas affected by the Stay at Home order, including restaurants like those owned by Whiteside and Donald.
"I’ve only got 14 shifts a week and I’m dividing between five people or six people," Donald told me. “Neither of [my businesses] got any of the SBA money. People like Ruth’s Chris and Potbelly Sandwiches got it.”
Whiteside also said he's working with a limited staff.
This is the New Normal for service industry workers: unemployment and underemployment.
Underpinning the anxiety around reopening business is something both Whiteside and Donald mentioned: a second wave during the holiday season would be devastating. The discussion ends there in a catch-22. Do we reopen and risk spiking the curve, leading to a second shutdown, or do we continue our current shutdown indefinitely as restaurants and their workers increasingly run out of money? Do restaurants cut their dining rooms in half? Do they alter their timing?
On April 23rd, Governor Roy Cooper announced an extension of the Stay at Home order to May 8th, potentially pushing restaurant openings back to June. Some celebrated. Others lamented.
It's a complicated situation without an easy answer, but for Donald at least, there's only one answer.
“If they tell me May 1st I can open full blown, I’m opening full blown on May 1st," Donald said. “I’m going to do whatever they allow me to do.”