Anxiety is rising about the impact of the “new normal” on people’s daily lives and businesses as countries around the world cautiously emerge from coronavirus lockdowns.
Schools, public transport, bars and restaurants are shaping up as the front lines as nations move out of lockdown but retain social distancing.
How each of those key sectors manages social distancing and reduces expected new outbreaks will determine the shape of daily life for millions as researchers race to develop a vaccine that is still likely months, if not years, away from being available to all.
What a return to normal looks like varies widely.
For hungry migrant workers in India, it was finally being able to catch trains back to their home villages to farm while city jobs dried up. For cruise ship workers stranded at sea for months, it was finally reaching shore in Croatia.
For wealthy shoppers in a Maserati or Rolls-Royce, it was returning to the newly reopened boutiques of America’s famous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
In Italy, where good food is an essential part of life itself, once-packed restaurants and cafes are facing a huge financial hit as they reopen with strict social distancing rules.
“We have to turn upside down all the activity that we did before,” lamented chef Raffaele di Cristo, who now must wear a mask and latex gloves as he prepares food at the popular Corsi Trattoria in Rome. “Everything is changed. Slowly, slowly, we will try to understand and to adapt to this coronavirus.”
Corsi reopened for business on Monday with half its tables removed to ensure the mandated one metre spacing between tables and customers. Hand sanitising gel was placed at the entrance and a new ordering system was installed so customers can read the menu on their phones instead of handling a shared plastic copy.
Slovakia reopened theatres, cinemas and shopping centres on Wednesday, all with new restrictions on visitor numbers, even though it has had only 28 deaths from Covid-19.
The head of the Dutch hospitality industry welcomed a decision to allow bars and restaurants to reopen on June 1, but warned about the impact of mandatory social distancing conditions.
“The restrictions are unfortunately unworkable” for many businesses, said Rober Willemsen of Royal Hospitality Netherlands, adding that more government support is needed to ensure the survival of many bars and restaurants.
Education is also facing a radical rethink.
Cambridge became the first university in Britain to cancel all face-to-face lectures for the upcoming school year, saying they will be held virtually and streamed online until summer 2021.
Other institutions have taken different approaches: the California State University system has announced that most classes will be online for the autumn. Notre Dame University will bring students back to campus but redesigned its calendar to start the term early in August and end before Thanksgiving, along with ordering masks, testing and contact tracing.
In South Korea, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors had their temperatures checked and used hand sanitisers as they returned to school on Wednesday, many for the first time since late last year after their new term was repeatedly pushed back. Students and teachers were required to wear masks and some schools installed plastic partitions around desks.
More than 60 schools near Seoul quickly sent their students home as a precaution after two students who had not even attended class were found to be infected.
France is limiting spaces in primary schools, giving priority to the children of essential workers and those in need. Some younger students even go on alternating days, while high schools remain closed.
In the new normal, people’s gratitude at being able to shop or eat out again is mingling with worries about job security.
Business was slow at a Paris farmers’ market with a mixed mood among the masked, gloved vendors. A man selling peonies and petunias said he was glad to get out and see shoppers again, while a woman selling asparagus and tomatoes behind a makeshift plastic screen grumbled that her customers were buying less than usual.
Fears about job security are not unwarranted. Airline engine maker Rolls-Royce announced plans to cut 9,000 workers as it grapples with the collapse in air travel due to the pandemic. In general, those jobs come with good pay and benefits, and losing them is a sharp blow to local communities.
Some businesses are quickly adapting to new realities. In Kenya, safari operators have resorted to sharing live broadcasts on social media in the hope that attention to endangered and other species does not fade.
Many governments, including many US states, are in fierce disagreement over what the new normal should even be.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez asked politicians to endorse a plan to extend the nation’s state of emergency by another two weeks until June 7, even as beaches reopened in Barcelona. Spain’s main opposition, the conservative Popular Party, said it will vote No.
“You are like a headless chicken running around not knowing what to do,” Popular Party leader Pablo Casado told Mr Sanchez. “To endorse your extension would be irresponsible.”
While infection rates have been falling in Asia and much of Europe, the pandemic is still spiking in Latin America. Brazil this week became the world’s third worst-hit country with more than 250,000 confirmed cases despite limited testing. In Lima, the capital of Peru, coronavirus patients are filling up the city’s intensive care beds.
“We’re in bad shape,” said Pilar Mazzetti, head of the Peruvian government’s Covid-19 task force. “This is war.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the pandemic could push millions into extreme poverty in Africa, where the virus has reached every country.
More than 4.9 million people worldwide have been confirmed infected with the virus, and over 323,000 deaths have been recorded, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts believe is too low for reasons that differ country by country. The United States has seen nearly 92,000 deaths and Europe has had nearly 165,000.
Russia and Brazil are now behind only the United States in the number of reported infections, and cases are also spiking in India, South Africa and Mexico.
Russia announced that its coronavirus caseload has surpassed 300,000, with the death toll almost reaching 3,000.