Getting beyond stage three…

I wrote back on March 20 (see What’s your plan?) that there are four stages that we all would be going through during this crisis. Stage 1 – Shock and Awe, Stage 2 – Fear and Anxiety, Stage 3 – Frustration and anger and, finally,  Stage 4 – Acceptance and inventiveness.

We have been through stages 1 and 2 for the past few weeks in quarantine and many, if not most, have already entered stage 3, as witnessed by the protest rally at the state capitol yesterday. The frustration and anger are fueled by fear and have been exacerbated by a total lack of leadership at the national level. One is tempted, while watching the daily briefings from Washington, to cue up the music “Send in the Clowns”, but as the song itself says, “Don’t bother, they’re here.”

So here we are, into stage 3 – frustrated and angry. Frustrated that we don’t know who to be angry at and angry that everything that we want to do is frustrated by the situation at hand. For some, that frustration and anger results in stupidity – going to crowded protest rallies unprotected by masks or social distancing comes to mind or going to large church services. For others it has resulted in family friction that threatens to end marriages or cause depression. For many this feels like the same anger and frustration that as children used to cause us to hold our breath until we turned blue. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.

Stage 3 is the most dangerous stage to get through, since it is the stage that precipitates to most dangerous reactions. When anger takes over your life, reason is often pushed aside in favor of a response – a response that in many cases just makes the situation worse. In this stage, even God becomes a target for our anger – we ask, “How could God let this happen to us?” In fact, it is in this stage that we need God’s help the most. We need to pray for God’s help to let us quickly move on to Stage 4, where we start to take positive steps to deal with the changes needed in our lives. We might pray that God calm our frustrations and anger or end our self-pity party and give us the strength to accept our new reality and find ways move forward within that reality.

The focus at state leadership levels will soon turn to defining the rules that must govern or lives as we return to work. We will not be out of danger with this virus for months, but efforts to flatten the curve have worked to some extent to reduce the severity of the outbreak and prevent the wholesale overrunning of our health care system. We could soon be at an acceptable steady-state level of infections and deaths (if there is ever an acceptable level for deaths), that will allow us to slowly put people back to work. It will not be life as we knew it. Nothing will be as we knew it. Some will call it the “new normal”; many will just use the old hack – “It is what it is”. I call it Stage 4 of this crisis – the accepting and adapting (inventing) stage.

In this next phase we will need to understand how to conduct our lives and our businesses in a manner that doesn’t harm others by re-introducing the virus to them. The virus will still be there. It will always be there. We will not have a widespread vaccine or enough people with herd immunity for a year or more, so we must learn to live without killing each other. Social distancing rules and practices will dramatically affect how we live and how we conduct business.

It will be literally impossible for some businesses to operate profitably under social distancing rules. How can a restaurant, that may have been small to begin with, be expected to continue with half or less of the tables that it needs to be profitable? Yet that may be the new reality, if tables must be far enough apart to prevent the spread of the virus.  How can small stores, in which 3-4 people constitutes a crowd, remain open under new occupancy and social distancing guidelines? How can large events like sporting events or street festivals that draw huge crowds be allowed or made safe? There are no good answers to these simple questions, yet, and we have not even thought of all of the questions at this point.

It is in this stage that our resourcefulness as a people and as a nation will be tested. It is also in this stage where a moral triage of sorts will take place. We will be making the conscious choice to accept a certain level of illnesses and deaths as the necessary price for the survival of our economy. While that has always been true in our society, it has seldom been as starkly apparent as it will be now. We have always chosen to let a certain segment of our society go without access to healthcare (and die) for economic reasons. It was convenient for us to ignore that segment, since they were usually the poor and homeless. This new choice puts our friends, co-workers and families equally at risk. The virus is not discriminatory in that regard.

Let’s move as quickly as we can into stage 4. It is a much more positive stage than the self-destructive environment of Stage 3. Our best scientists and medical professionals will continue to focus on finding treatments and vaccines. Now our best business minds must focus upon creative ways to get America safely back to work. It won’t be easy, but there is not a challenge that we can’t overcome, once we put our minds to the task.

As a business owner, the first task at hand in Phase 4 is making it possible for customers to shop or eat or get services in your business with a minimum risk of becoming infected, and still be profitable while doing so. That task is quickly followed by finding the best way to let your customers know that you are open again and have taken those steps to protect them. Just don’t be the bull-headed merchant who re-opens without regard to the guidelines and gets shuttered again by the authorities (and there will be those jerks).  

Believe me there is plenty of pent-up demand for goods and services and food . It’s time to get to stage 4 and get ready to re-open. There is not a more creative group in our economy than the small business owners who make up the backbone of that economy. It’s time to get creative.

Let’s re-open American for safe business!

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