Thursday, October 8, 2020

Small Things That Might Not be the Same After the COVID-era

via Unsplash - This is probably a cocktail party, rather than a breakfast buffet, but I used to be fond of hotel breakfast buffet cheese plates and charcuterie selections... 

The title of this post might sound gloomy and serious, but it really isn't meant to be! I was just thinking about some of the little things that might not be the same again - maybe for a long time or maybe forever - after the world starts getting back to the pre-COVID "normal," when the pandemic is finally under control. I imagine the US will likely lag behind many other countries in this, as it already has. Even amongst my work colleagues - who generally aren't as cautious as my close friends and family and who are eager, desperate even, to stop working mostly from home - there's a general sense now that we can't reasonably expect to be fully back in the office and attending in-person depositions and federal court proceedings until the second half of 2021, at the very earliest. 

While things had been looking pretty good in NYC on the COVID-management front for quite some time - with robust testing and the maintenance of a mostly ~1% positivity rate since mid-August or so, all with plenty of outdoor socializing and dining - there's now been a slight turn. Specifically, there's been a significant uptick in COVID cases in certain neighborhoods. Government-mandated shutdowns of schools and nonessential businesses in affected zip codes in Brooklyn and Queens may begin shortly.

In any case, even if the entire city were forced to shut down again, that really wouldn't change day-to-day life much for K and I. We were already staying home, except for essential errands to the grocery store and pharmacy! 

And now, back to the topic at hand, about various small things I think might not be the same again once we get to late 2021 or early 2022, when life otherwise starts inching closer to the pre-COVID "normal." But in some cases, particularly towards the end of the list, some of my ideas might just be wishful thinking on my part, unfortunately. 

Hotel breakfast buffets: I'll start with something particularly small and silly, not least because I was never actually willing to pay for them with my own money! I only ever got to partake on business trips, or when traveling to the rare destination where a free breakfast comes standard with the hotel room. But I'm still really going to miss hotel breakfast buffets, since I doubt anyone will be eager to go back to eating from them, even after a COVID vaccine has been distributed worldwide and international travel is mostly back to normal. 

The thing is, as I searched for a photo of a prototypical breakfast buffet at a fancy hotel, something I used to sincerely enjoy, all the photos started to look... not so appealing anymore, and maybe - dare I say it - even a little bit gross. Now that we've all had a painfully vivid reminder about how quickly disease can spread - and about the sheer quantity of respiratory droplets that circulate in the air just from normal breathing and talking when people aren't wearing face masks - I don't think I can ever really look at any buffet the same way again, or at least, not for a good long time. 

Face masks becoming more accepted as a health precaution in the US: Having frequently traveled to Taiwan throughout my life, and having lived in Hong Kong briefly before law school, I was always familiar with the idea of wearing a face mask as a precaution when one had a cold or the sniffles, out of respect and consideration for the public. But, I confess, I was never really sold on the idea for myself until now. Face masks were never really a thing regular people wore in public in the US. Before 2020, I only ever wore a face mask out on a single, solitary occasion, immediately after my 2017 accident, which left me with a broken front tooth and scraped-up lip (so I was wearing the mask purely for vanity before the dentist could fix the tooth). 

And even when I was on my European business trips in early March - when there was already plenty of international news about COVID-19 being serious - I ignored my parents' suggestions that I should wear a face mask on the plane. Among other things, it'd been impossible to find surgical masks in NYC for a few weeks. (I didn't have any masks in my possession until late March, when my mom was able to send me some.) At the time, our CDC was also advising that members of the general public not wear masks, guidance they didn't fully reevaluate by late March

Obviously, things have changed when it comes to the American cultural understanding of mask-wearing as a health precaution (even if there are still way too many instances of foolish, kooky people here who are vigorously opposed to wearing face masks in public). And even after COVID-19 is well controlled in the US - which will hopefully happen by late 2021, maybe? - I hope at least some critical mass of people might continue wearing a face mask out and about if they have any respiratory symptoms and/or during flu and cold season, so it won't look too strange when I continue to do so. 

Law school attendance and exam-taking while sick: At least at my law school - and I believe this was also standard elsewhere - our grades in each class were generally overwhelmingly dependent on a single paper or exam at semester's end. In 1L year - the most important one for those targeting biglaw, as most biglaw hiring happens in late summer before 2L year and, accordingly, depends on 1L grades - every exam took place on a rigid schedule. There was no real way to get any exam date moved, short of a conflicting religious holiday, illness requiring hospitalization, or major family emergency. 

In the second semester of 1L, I fell ill during exam period (the only time I got sick enough to contemplate staying home from class during the three years of law school). The 1L exam schedule was spaced out so we only needed to study for one exam at a time: We'd take our first exam and then have two or three full days off to study before the next, rinse and repeat. I got sick during the gap between exams, with a fever, lethargy, and... gastrointestinal symptoms. It was all I could do to study as much as possible for my Constitutional Law exam in between long naps to try and recover. 

There was absolutely no question I'd still need to take my exam on the scheduled day, even though I still felt sick when test day came around. One simply understood that "run of the mill" illness was not an adequate excuse for approaching the law school administration to request a rescheduled exam, and it wasn't worth even trying to ask. I wore raggedy old sweatpants to the test (the only time I ever wore sweatpants out of my apartment during law school). I think that reflects how poorly I was still feeling. I ultimately got an A on the exam, so it ended about as well for me as it could have.

Law schools are generally fairly strict for all students when it comes to exam scheduling, at least in my experience. I'm somewhat hoping this could change to accommodate student illness in the post-COVID era, and that people might better appreciate the importance of not forcing people to attend exams while sick, and potentially infecting others. (Though maybe this isn't a realistic hope, given that American culture and our economic system exert considerable pressure on people to power through and still go to class or work while sick.) 

Biglaw workplace culture around taking sick days: Much like with many other industries and jobs, it's... frowned upon for biglaw associates to stay home from work for too many sick days. I came down with a rather nasty cold during my first year at my first biglaw firm and stayed home for one sick day, thought I was feeling better and went back to the office the next day, only to realize I was still pretty sick and stayed home for a second sick day after that. And when I went back to work after, I got some snide comments from my firm classmates about where I'd been. 

The only other time I've ever taken any sick days from work was early last December, during a period that was intensely busy even by biglaw standards. I agonized over the decision to take two sick days in a row. I was... still unwell when I went back to the office on the third day, with a hacking cough and nasty sore throat. The cold may have been unusually severe enough - compared to any I'd ever had in the past - that once news about COVID-19 became well-known, I spent a brief moment wondering if, in hindsight, what I had in December was actually COVID. (I don't think it was, it was still significantly less severe than the flu. I'd gotten the flu shot last year, by the way, as I do every year.) My current workplace has a far less hard-driving culture than biglaw and would not look askance at my using two or three sick days, but I still worried because I remembered how things were in biglaw.

And the thing about biglaw sick days is that they don't even really mean anything! If the associate is busy, the fact that they are taking a sick day is basically irrelevant. The associate will almost certainly still be expected to work on more or less the exact same deadline or schedule that was set before they got sick! (Or at least, the associate will know that pushing back and requesting a postponed deadline because of their illness could result in professional consequences.)

That first time I got sick at my first firm, I wasn't that busy, but still had some work, which I did from home. When I got sick last December, I was so busy that I billed ~11 hours each day on my sick days (equivalent to a workday that could keep one at the office past 9:00 PM and include ordering a restaurant delivery dinner to be billed to the firm or client). While my supervisors would never specifically have requested that I work while sick, we had so much work at the time that I didn't feel like I had a choice. I'm not sure I'd hold out much hope that COVID will change these general facts about biglaw and expectations for attorneys to work through sick days.

But I'd at least hope that, in the post-COVID era, biglaw attorneys will be better about staying home from the office when sick, and also about not looking askance at colleagues for staying home. 

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