The Four Possible Timelines for Life Returning to Normal

The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.

The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?

The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.

There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at the University of California at Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored.

Unfortunately, both of these paths could be a year or two long, but degrees of normalcy will likely be won back in the meantime: Come summer, Americans might get restaurants but no music festivals, offices but no crowded beaches, bars with spaced-out seating. Projecting when each facet of daily life will be restored would be easier if public-health authorities had an omniscient view of who is infected, who has recovered and become immune, and who is still susceptible—this is the information that would emerge from widespread testing, which the United States is terribly behind on deploying.

As such, America is currently left with self-isolation, a blunt tactic that can slow the spread of the virus, potentially sparing the country’s hospitals from a catastrophic overload of patients, but that comes at the cost of freezing daily life. Epidemiologists I interviewed stressed that they have no idea when life will be unfrozen, but they walked me through a series of possible timelines on which Americans might be able to safely start leaving the house to make money or do fun things again. Below are those timelines, including some turning points to look out for in the coming weeks, months, and years.

No matter what, staying safe means staying home for a while yet, despite Donald Trump’s desire, expressed at a Fox News town hall on Tuesday, “to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter.” Moving back toward normalcy at this early stage could be disastrous. “Prematurely ending severe social distancing would be an incredible blunder that would have major human consequences,” Noymer told me. “What is ‘prematurely’? The truth is, we don’t know yet, exactly, but it’s longer than a fortnight. It could be eight to 12 weeks.”

I should note that the experts I spoke with think this timeline is highly unlikely. But America could be through with most of its social distancing in a month or two if the coronavirus turns out “to not be a serious pathogen, suddenly,” said William Hanage, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “All of the people who are now infected, instead of behaving like the infected people we’ve seen [before], have very mild disease, and we realize that immunity is being generated.” This “false alarm” outcome would of course be fantastic, but also produce “a lot of head-scratching” among public-health experts, Hanage said.

Another path to a short-term resolution is much grimmer: Too-lax social distancing could produce what Noymer calls a “big, short, sharp shock” of infections sometime in the next few months, overwhelming the health-care system and killing enormous numbers of people. After such a catastrophe, it’s conceivable that lots of people infected with the virus would recover, bringing the broader population closer, if not all the way, to immunity.

Both of these eventualities would make it okay to go out again in a couple of months, but even if Americans are still mostly cooped up at home in late spring, public-health experts will have learned more about the virus by then. Perhaps most important, they should know how much strain this first wave of infections will have put on America’s hospitals, and thus how effective containment efforts have been. This information isn’t readily available now, Hanage explained, because people who get infected today generally won’t require intensive care until several weeks from now. Also in a month or two, public-health authorities and researchers will likely have a better sense of whether those who recover from an infection are immune to future infections, and if so, for how long. That information will come in handy for containment efforts.