Coronavirus will change Pittsburgh, but how? Here are 26 local leaders' predictions for what's to come.
April 20, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life in the Pittsburgh region, shuttering businesses, rattling job and housing stability and forcing fields like education, art, health care and religion online.
While the pandemic will eventually pass, its impacts could linger long after residents are able to return to their routines. While the future is unknown, PublicSource reached out to local experts in several fields to get their perspectives on what COVID-19 has changed and how they’re thinking about the future.
The choice: Less density or increased public health measures
Sabina Deitrick, Pittsburgh Planning Commission member; associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
In the 20th century, America moved toward less dense suburban and ex-urban environments. But after the Great Recession, investments in living in the city increased as more people chose to live closer together. Will that continue in the post-COVID-19 years?
The counter to that discussion is the experience of parts of Asia and the Middle East in SARS and MERS that worked to develop stronger public health preparedness planning measures. The experiences of Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are already being written about in this COVID-19 crisis in that vein. The debate then shifts from density to public response. One thing we can expect – models in public health on global pandemics won’t be ignored by so many any more, at least in the coming years.
Planners who deal with equity issues will continue to be important – and hopefully rise in importance – following this pandemic.
Rebuilding trust in main streets, public spaces and cultural events
Christine Mondor, architect and principal, evolveEA; chair of the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission
Many of us mourn the loss of our local coffeehouse or favorite shop as we have been forced out of our habitual places. In our homes, we collaborate on projects virtually, we meet friends for happy hour via video conference and we purchase our staple goods online. As we become proficient in these new ways of relating to each other, we will find that many of them, especially the ones that we deem convenient, will remain.
Already struggling with a lack of retail, main streets will need to reposition themselves more intentionally with relation to online activity. While employees are discovering the pros and cons of working from home, employers will reevaluate what functions truly need a shared office space.
We have rediscovered our parks and our public spaces. People are exploring trails and parts of the city that they have not seen before. The outdoors are a vital safety valve for mental and physical health, and our appreciation of our parks should be durable.
Cultural activities and events that give life to commercial districts will have another challenge — how to rebuild our trust in gathering places. Social distancing assumes that others near us may unintentionally harm us. That mindset will be hard to erase. Given what we know today, a vaccine may be the only way to rebuild confidence.
We recognize all of the indispensable workers, and compensate
Diamonte Walker, deputy executive director, Urban Redevelopment Authority
The reality is that prior to the disruption, some people and places needed intentional urban development, and those places are likely to feel disproportionate shocks and stressors in a crisis. But the people on the frontlines of this crisis, especially the ones who don’t get as much well-earned praise as doctors and nurses, are the ones keeping us afloat. It is amazing that in this technologically reliant era, that allows us to do more than we ever could before, none of it would be possible without traditionally disempowered people. How we discuss and pay these members of our workforce must change to truly reflect their essential value to our society.
I sense that many of us are longing to return to a sense of normalcy. This is a natural response to anything that causes disruption to daily life on a scale this grand, but I am mindful that change and uncertainty is the only constant in life. But what doesn’t change, even in a crisis? I see a longing for connection, sense of purpose, innovation and productivity. We need to remember the lessons we've learned in isolation. There is a glimmer of hope that we can choose to usher in an era of reconstructive healing and resilience. That is the path I am choosing to take, and I hope others will join me.
Small businesses and small projects will lead the recovery
Bill Peduto, mayor of Pittsburgh
Peduto, in a recent interview, predicted that the economic recovery effort following the crisis will involve "much more of a focus being given to individuals and small businesses, as we [in city government] were making that change anyway. I think that will become the focus of Southwestern Pennsylvania instead of larger projects and developments. And that will require the key commitment and the key endorsement of state leaders. If large grants continue to flow to large projects without there being adequate resources for small businesses, entrepreneurs and individuals, we won’t see that recovery for quite some time. At least on a statewide level, if we prioritize into the small, into the entrepreneur, into the reopening of those businesses, and getting individuals back on their feet, we'll see the recovery at a much quicker pace, and be able to get back to where we were two months ago, over the course of the next couple of years."
Workplace hygiene and sick leave will improve
Brandon Mendoza, executive director, NAIOP Pittsburgh
Spring through fall is construction season, so the halting of projects could have serious ramifications, especially those with limited flexibility from their financing partners and potential tenants. There is a movement to try to get these projects classified as essential, obviously with fewer workers on the sites and adhering to CDC-approved guidelines. Some states have exempted construction work from their stoppages, but we have not.
I think that workplace hygiene will be the greatest change going forward. I also believe things like paid sick leave will be commonplace, if not enacted federally. I think a lot of firms will do health assessments after this and realize that they can be doing a lot more to keep their talent healthy. I think the commercial real estate world will rise to this challenge and build products reflective of this growing need for healthier and more hygienic spaces.
Local organizations will rise to the challenge
Illah Nourbakhsh, K&L Gates Professor of Ethics and Computational Technologies, The Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University
As I watch our shared struggle through adversity, Pittsburgh, I am deeply touched by the best of your values that shine during this trial.
Innovation has always been a special talent of Pittsburgh, whether in the forging of steel, the creation of robotic and medical technology, or the expression of arts and humanities as a lens for understanding injustice and inequity. That special set of innovation talents happen to be ideal tools in the toolbox we now need in order to beat this virus.
Our foundations have pooled resources, building fast-trigger funds and then disbursing them to community organizations that serve needs throughout town. Community organizations have not only amplified their efforts for underserved residents, but they are actively reaching out through diverse networks. Food distribution networks are already providing nutrition to children with little recourse. Health care experts, university and corporate innovators and foundations are collaborating to understand how rapid innovation can provide game-changing increases in our ability to care for at-risk populations who will need hospitalization and more.
Within our lab, most of my colleagues have paused their regular research and outreach practices to find ways in which we can all provide value to local efforts.
All of these challenges benefit from rapid prototyping based on careful listening, followed by never-ending reinvention. These are the skills our technical innovators have and will improve the outcome for our region: local solutions for our local culture.
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Environment & Sustainability
Environmental investments amid economic recovery
Grant Ervin, City of Pittsburgh chief resilience officer
The principles stay the same — from an environmental standpoint and an economic standpoint and social benefit standpoint. Making the investments in clean technologies and the clean economy are going to give us the opportunity for a greater and stronger recovery. One of the things you’ve seen if you’ve walked around your neighborhood, or looking out watching people on the streets or riding their bikes, instead of automobiles, the city is definitely quieter and the air is crisper and cleaner. You can have that same kind of future if you transition to lower carbon sources of operations, whether walking or biking or electric vehicles. So the clean transition will have notable benefits coming out of this. It’s a matter of sticking to the course.
Our focuses haven’t changed. So we’ve been continuing our work on energy efficiency and identifying project priorities for facilities upgrades. What is going to change is obviously the amount of capital available. We’re obviously going to have major budget hits. So looking at the capital budget of last year and what was projected for this year is going to be a lot different. As we come out of that uncertainty phase and into a recovery phase, we’re going to need to be prepared for the right kinds of projects that will accelerate the economic investment.
One of the big opportunities is everybody is at home now. You're going to see a pivot in terms of the amount of utilities people are consuming. Traditionally, the commercial and industrial office environments have higher amounts of consumption because everyone is at work. If everyone is at home in spring and summer, we’re going to see higher cooling costs and heating costs. So as people see these higher bills, this is one of the biggest opportunities in terms of recovery: new windows, better insulation, higher efficiency heating and cooling systems, etc.
Will pollution and climate change responses stall?
Neil Donahue, director of the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research at Carnegie Mellon University
A huge question is whether we (locally, nationally, globally) will restart economies as fast as possible in an emergency mode that pays no attention to side effects (pollution and climate) or possibly close attention to those effects. This is likely to vary around the world, but I have hopes that people will see some benefit to the lower pollution and also reconsider their reactions to the risk of climate change. I fear this will not be true and that the huge investment in bailouts and desperation to restart the economy will set back air pollution and climate responses by many years. This is crucial, and I will try to help people see past the potential misrepresentation of this as either-or, just as with the tired “environment vs. jobs” tropes. Unrelated to air pollution and climate, I hope that the public health lessons will last, from the most basic hygiene of hand washing to more detailed issues such as capacity to deal with surges in critical care across the country.
Resiliency has become a more urgent, concrete reality
Joylette Portlock, Ph.D., executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh
The biggest changes in the field so far, beyond the adjustments we are all making to virtual operations and social distancing, have to do with the focus on the now. The nonprofit sector has always been focused on communities, people and improvement of quality of life. This is critical work, and as such, there is an even greater imperative to refocus much of our energy around these immediate needs.
Depending on how protracted the pandemic is, I expect to see ongoing and additional hardship for many, many people. At the same time, we may develop a new level of comfort with some of the features that are being deployed: virtual communications, technical innovation, adapted business models.
Resiliency, which was once something of an abstract concept, becomes extremely tangible when workers are laid off, services are interrupted, social inequities are grossly exacerbated, and the things we take for granted about basic life activities become uncertain. In addition, sustainability challenges like climate change are taking a back seat in the public consciousness but will remain vital to address as part of our strategy to rebuild as this moment passes, and into the future.
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Schools will be seen again as focal points of communities
Michelle King, the Learning Instigator; teacher at the Environmental Charter School
I’m used to being terrified by the word, ‘apocalypse,’ but I have discovered over my lived experiences that words are meant to be life-giving. In that vein, I recently looked up the etymology of the word apocalypse. It’s a Greek word, apokálypsis, meaning "an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.”
The experience of living in the midst of this global pandemic of the coronavirus is lifting the veil and revealing to more and more Pittsburghers the inequities existing in our educational, social, health and political systems. Schools do not merely exist to transmit knowledge. This pandemic has revealed it is also where many students receive two and sometimes three meals a day, health and well-being check ups and connection to caring adults. It is reminding us of how libraries, sports, after-school programs and places of worship are the fabric that supports our children and tethers us together.
Children were not meant to be raised by one or two adults. They were meant to be raised by tens of caring adults to show them the way to participating wholly and fully in this commonwealth. Another word to reclaim: A commonwealth is "a community, whole body of people in a state.”
Universities will see fewer out-of-state, foreign students
Chris Briem, a regional economist with the Urban & Regional Analysis Program at the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research
Pittsburgh has developed a substantial concentration of higher education and research. But a major proportion of the students that come to Pittsburgh in pursuit of undergraduate and graduate education come here from around the world, and an ever-larger share come from across the nation. If, as seems likely at least into the near future, students remain less likely to matriculate into distant schools, then many regional institutions of higher education will be forced into significant adjustments not just for admissions, but also in staffing and hiring.
The nation has also been brutally reminded of the importance of a robust public health infrastructure. I am often asked what jobs ‘replaced’ the heavy industry jobs that once were the core of the region’s economy. Slow but steady expansion of both clinical health care and research has sustained the region over recent decades. As the nation reprioritizes the role of health care industries, Pittsburgh is well positioned to take advantage of the shifts to come. Because Pittsburgh has staked out its role as a technology center, a “tele-work nation” could also play to Pittsburgh’s emerging strengths.
Childcare workers will be seen as essential workers
Cara Ciminillo, executive director of Trying Together, a nonprofit focused on early childhood
The lasting change will be the understanding that just as roads, bridges, modes of transportation, education and training get our workforce to work – so does child care. We know that for essential workers to be able to do their job and meet the needs of our community, we need a childcare infrastructure that supports their ability to work and to have peace of mind about the quality of care their children receive.
If we do not focus our recovery efforts, in part, on robustly building the system that allows the workforce to work, we will not recover. Childcare workers must not only be acknowledged but paid for. We will be able to distinctly tie our success or failure in economic recovery to the success or failure of the childcare system.
And although the immediate health crisis is still very much front and center, discussions about how Pennsylvania will be able to recover economically are not far behind. Pennsylvania will only go back to work if the childcare system is intact. There is no other way.
Universities will adapt to digital distancing
Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees
Over the next weeks and months, we expect to offer new and innovative methods to strengthen our bonds. Through the use of technology, a new volunteer initiative will connect Pitt faculty, staff and students with partner organizations through our Office of Community and Governmental Relations and provide opportunities to serve the community at large in a number of ways.
Additionally, we have plans to offer live online programming, gatherings and events to stay together while we’re apart. Through PittWire Live, we’ll create new connections to address the physical, social and academic needs of our Pitt family. Many departments are providing a range of content, allowing the university to transcend the physical restrictions of the pandemic. And what we create for today, we are creating to last well beyond the needs of this moment in time.
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Trauma will linger far beyond the immediate pandemic effects
Dr. Jack Rozel, president of the American Association for Emergency Psychiatry; associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh; medical director of resolve Crisis Services
Often the psychological impact of a disaster not only rises with the event itself but then continues to rise after the initial event concludes. Put simply: Demand for mental health services will increase, and substantial shifts in resources will be needed to respond adequately, not just now but in the months and years ahead.
Families have been asked to isolate for extended periods. For many, this is the longest they have spent together without break, and they are doing so under tremendous stress. For some, this has meant being unable to leave a home where their abuser lives. And, for some, they are in a home where alcohol and firearms were stockpiled along with toilet paper and food. Most families will do well during and after this crisis and find their path to a new normal. Some families will face new traumas and tragedies.
There has been an unprecedented expansion of telehealth services, but not every person in need has access to the technology or bandwidth to make use of telehealth services. This “telegap” is likely to impact the same people who are already at greatest risk: the underemployed, the underhoused, and the chronically ill or disabled. It is unlikely to be worth the administrative effort to revert entirely to prior treatment models. More succinctly: It will not be worth the effort to try to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Public health has to become resilient everywhere
Dr. Mark Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Lab at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health
I’d like to believe that this kind of problem presenting itself might finally allow people to realize that public health resources are important in the United States and have been ignored for a really long time. We’ve always assumed public health was for developing countries and poor places, but these kinds of things are important — to track infections, to do case finding, contact tracing of people who might’ve gotten infected. That all requires public health resources we don’t currently have in the United States.
In general, the size and funding of public health departments in counties and cities has been declining over time. And in order to be able to be prepared for infectious disease and disaster threats like hurricanes, we need to have a system that is more robust throughout the entire United States. When you think about things like Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy in New York, the most important thing you remember about that is the rest of the country was fine. You could move resources around from other parts of the country. With something like this, you can’t do that because COVID-19 is everywhere. So you need the resources for public health endeavors to be resilient everywhere.
Telehealth will take up increasing mental health loads
Sharise M. Nance, founder of Vitamin C Healing; therapist, speaker and author
The week of March 9 can be marked as a defining moment in the helping and healthcare profession for many of my colleagues. As COVID-19’s impact on Allegheny County grew, my business partner and I were faced with the tough decision to temporarily close our private counseling practice and quickly transition to telehealth (video and phone) mental health sessions. The impact of this pandemic left many of us in this profession with questions and uncertainties: Will our clients be willing to make the transition from face-to-face to virtual mental health sessions? How will telehealth sessions impact client care? Will we be able to sustain our business during these times of uncertainty?
But there may be a long-term shift toward more telehealth, including more practitioners working from home and more telehealth providers; health insurance companies allocating more flexibility for telehealth services in emergencies; and increasing webinar services to deliver workshops around mental health topics.
A turn toward community, away from isolation
Kenneth Thompson, psychiatrist, Squirrel Hill Health Center; director and co-founder of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Leadership Council
COVID-19 isn’t just a viral pandemic. It’s a pandemic of fear and of social dislocation. Everyone living in isolation — many with significant financial and social needs, including fear and grief — is a recipe for a mounting wave of mental health disorders to come. The field is beginning to think of itself as a critical component of public health.
The mass effort by the federal government and a wide range of local government and community actors to support vulnerable people, families and communities through this augers a moment of much greater social solidarity. It's not hard to imagine the need to extend Medicaid to cover the many people about to become uninsured.
It's possible that the moment of solidarity might extend to becoming an age of solidarity, with the creation of a real safety net and a social democracy, at variance with the extreme individualism of the last decades. For psychiatry, this would mean the lessening of the challenges that create psychiatric illnesses — stigma, poverty, lack of resources. It would also unleash forces that prevent psychiatric disorders or help people recover — greater mutuality, more inclusion and less stigma. All with more use of technology to connect us.
Or it may generate the reverse — more fear and isolation. In any case, it’s up to us to make our future. Together or apart. Our choice. That’s the psychiatric dilemma of our time. Which will it be?
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HOUSING & SOCIAL SERVICES
Housing takes center stage as a determinant of public health
Lena Andrews, director of real estate development, ACTION-Housing
One positive cultural change that could outlast this pandemic is that society will view housing as one of the strongest social determinants of health. We know this anecdotally, but after we’ve all sheltered in place in our homes for weeks or months to keep ourselves and our families safe and healthy, it becomes much clearer how dangerous and destabilizing it is for people not have a stable affordable place to live – not just for the individual but for society as a whole.
We have residents and clients who work in the service industry who have lost their jobs. They need to have access to the food, essential goods and health care they need to stay healthy in addition to an affordable place to live. We are collaborating with the rest of the nonprofit world as we work to build a stronger safety net for Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable residents.
As low- and moderate-wage workers lose their jobs and have to take pay cuts, there will be increased demand for more affordable units of housing in the Pittsburgh region. With a major election coming up, we need to vote for candidates and demand policies that support public investment in affordable housing.
We’ll have to fight a ‘rebound effect’ of increased evictions
Megan Stanley, director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations
As we shift to telework and spend entire days confined indoors, the conditions we live in, and are forced to live in, come into ever-sharper focus. During this crisis, moratoriums have been put in place to halt evictions, financial assistance is available to stabilize housing, and some landlords are canceling rent. But how long will that last? My concern is that we will see a rebound effect, and many people who cannot afford to pay rent will end up with evictions on their record, forever following them as they search for housing.
Maybe now we will construct programs that do not just give people a brick-and-mortar structure, but safe and habitable housing, a place where you would not mind being quarantined. A place where your children could safely stay indoors for 24 hours a day. Our hope at the commission is that people will rely less on court systems and evictions and more on understanding the human condition, and each other.
I have long thought what was missing from social policy was a sense of empathy — of understanding how people at the bottom were made to live, through a tangled web of safety net programs and fragmented government systems. For years, I have thought we just need something that will make everyone understand how important, for example, your housing conditions and your neighborhood are.
Need to coordinate food assistance and growing food
NaTisha Washington, green initiative coordinator at Operation Better Block
It’s just been crazy because there are so many people and nonprofits who do so many different things with food. But it’s really hard to get all the groups together to focus on the same thing. In the future, we need to create an emergency food program that is for everyone.
People are calling all these different places to see where they can go to get what. Now people are seeing there needs to be a centralized group or a centralized place to get these updates to get these resources and know where to go for what. They can figure out things online, but the stuff that is in their own community might not be online, or if they are not friends with the right group of people they might not know who needs it the most.
I think one of the things I’ve learned is how much more important it is for me in my organization to try to grow all year round. If something happens where we need a localized food source, we’re it. In a season like this where we have a capacity to grow indoors, how can we have something for residents, even if it’s spinach or leafy greens, all year round for people who have food insecurity issues?
A moment to change how we address inequality
Jamil Bey, Ph.D., president and CEO, UrbanKind Institute
Our goal is to better understand the extent and the depth of inequities that our political and economic system have produced. We believe that there is much to learn in this moment of concentrated need and service. We will be better able to articulate the goals and priorities of vulnerable residents and better able to advocate with them for transformative change.
I expect that there will be resistance to adopting new rules and relationships between employers and employees. My hope is that we come to recognize that the inequities in our society threaten our collective security and resilience. This realization will allow us to think about the necessary changes that we make to provide family sustainable wages and benefits – especially to workers that are deemed to be “essential.”
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Artists become more critical and digital, still underpaid
Jasiri X, founder and CEO, 1Hood Media
When you look at the things that have been most hopeful and inspiring, it’s been musicians, artists and DJs. Oftentimes the arts is the last area people think about and want to support. But there’s people singing on their balconies. What would you be doing if there was no art, if there was no music, nobody writing shows? What would you be doing?
The crisis also shows how vulnerable the artist community is. Artists get so little through the streaming services, so if you’re an artist that doesn’t have top 10 songs, you’re more than likely doing events locally or going to different colleges or whatever. Now that income is gone.
As artists, we have to be more engaged with technology, and we have to be nimble about engaging in other venues and other income streams. If there’s a way to make online content compelling enough, why stop it? If you can set up your mic and your guitar in your living room and you can create something engaging enough for folks to support, wouldn’t you rather do that than all the work it takes to rent out a hall, etc.?
But people tend to continue to do what they’ve always done, and my fear coming out of this is that the majority of the money spent will be upholding these institutions that are basically old and white, for lack of a better description, and a lot of the smaller Black and brown-led institutions will kind of be moved to the side.
Digital shift will change the quality of our communication
Jody Guy, founder and director, Center for Civic Arts
Telecommunications and other virtual meeting spaces are establishing the new norm for meetings and conversations of all sorts – personal and professional. Zoom, Skype and FaceTime will become how we do business normally, versus only for those comfortable with the technology. We really don’t know how that will impact communication. A text, an email, FaceTime, and a face-to-face experience have varying qualities of communication.
I hope that lessons learned from the 1918 and 2020 pandemics will finally change the way public health is managed and financed in the United States and globally. I hope that health care will consolidate in the United States and globally, with expanded access to everyone ... particularly for third world countries and for the lowest socio- economic groups. The question is whether we put humanity first with a global public health system that saves lives, or will we forget what we are learning now and perpetuate insanity in future pandemics?
We need to listen to the experts and not to politicians. We know that Woodrow Wilson suppressed valuable health information about the 1918 flu pandemic in order to focus public attention on winning a war (World War I), and it cost millions of lives. How many lives will be lost due to the ego of men chasing the presidential office in 2020?
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The church becomes more of a people than a place
Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister, Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania
There’s a Vacation Bible School song: “The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place: The church is the people.” In the midst of COVID-19, we’re discovering just how true that is.
In recent weeks, I’ve watched clergy and congregations scale a Himalayan learning curve to use technology in new ways. Whether it’s worship on Facebook Live or Bible study via YouTube or a Passion Play on Zoom, teenagers and nonagenarians alike are using new tools to be the church: to worship and pray together, reach out to people who are sick or lonely, to serve our neighbors.
These technologies make it easier than ever to worship without worrying about getting dressed up or finding a place to park. You can easily pop in on services anywhere around the globe. And yet, fancy worship led by strangers can’t provide what we need most when we’re feeling isolated and afraid: the familiar faces and voices of people we know. For that, a simple prayer service from the pastor’s living room, with her cat wandering through the wobbly video, does just fine.
Not everything can be replicated online, so when the stay-at-home order is lifted, I expect our communities to gather joyfully in person to share hugs and handshakes, to sing together, to celebrate the Eucharist again. But I wouldn’t be surprised if churches continue to use technology, too, to connect beyond the walls of their buildings.
The world begins to look a bit more Islamic
Imam Chris Caras, Islamic Center of Pittsburgh
It’s kind of ironic, from our view, that society is in certain ways becoming more Islamic resembling. There is cleaning before prayer. In English, that would be called ablution, a preritual washing of hands, face and feet. And all the regulations for wearing face masks, resembling a veil. More conservative Islamic women still observe face veil.
The main issue is concerning praying remotely when you can’t come to the mosque. That’s something we’ve always done anyway but people who want to maintain their connection to the mosque, it is possible for them to do a correspondence prayer while the imam reads it on Youtube or Zoom.
I do think there will always be a few people that will keep the social distancing and those practices in effect. I think a lot of our programs will incorporate a live element to follow along from home, even if things return back to normal. We’ve always had a demand for people who aren’t able to make it to service at the normal time. It’s been difficult to meet that demand due to our staff limitations and limited technical knowledge.
I think the services, the volume of attendance, I hope and expect to continue as it was before, maybe with a bit more fervor in the beginning because people can appreciate the blessing of the actual building itself and coming together as a community.