It's anybody's guess when the nation will get back to normal or what looks like normal. As Columbus businesses his the reset button, everyone is doing their best to adjust.

The news has been hard to watch this month, yet it can be difficult to tear yourself away from it. With a virus we’ve never seen before and don’t fully understand still out there making people ill, we are being told we’re going to begin a soft reopening of Ohio’s businesses May 1.

What will life look like this summer? That’s a matter of conjecture. The Columbus Partnership is gathering survey responses regarding attitudes about what a return to work would need to involve, and Battelle is scenario modeling outcomes to share with public health officials.

There’s a strong chance we’ll all be wearing masks. Plastic barriers between workers and customers will feature prominently in the retail world and health care settings. Indoor spaces of many types probably will be subject to limits on the number of people inside at any given time. 

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Though I’m sure there will be plenty of loud complaints from some corners of Ohio, I believe we will make the necessary adjustments and accommodations to protect our health and the health of our neighbors. We won’t be walking open-faced into bars and restaurants to enjoy happy hour or dinner together anytime soon.

How to define the experience of living and running businesses in the time of COVID-19? Neighborhood sidewalks filled with people out walking in the spring twilight. Birthday parties with loved ones treasuring the chance to connect on Zoom. Unprecedented mass unemployment. Trepidation in every grocery store. Simultaneously missing one another and being deeply afraid of the infection we could be carrying.

So many more questions than answers.

The economy is in tatters. How bad it’s going to get is anyone’s guess. Our public institutions, behemoths in the community, were brought down overnight. Hungry people are showing up at pantries in droves.

But a sense of optimism and caring stubbornly persists.

“Maybe you just don’t realize it when you’re in the middle of it,” Tom Katzenmeyer told me when I asked how he’s managed to essentially jump through rings of fire in the past few weeks. As CEO of the Greater Columbus Arts Council and finance chair for the board of trustees at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, in quick succession he had to cancel the Greater Columbus Arts Festival and vote to furlough three quarters of library staff indefinitely as the coronavirus ravaged the community.

“The sector that I work in, the arts, has really been knocked on its ass, and I don’t think there’s any better way to say that,” Katzenmeyer says. But “people in this city want their arts.”

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Generosity has poured in, he says, in the form of major corporate donations, a $1.5 million gift from the Columbus Foundation, a commitment from the Franklin County commissioners, and a successful Artists’ Relief Fund campaign that raised more than $230,000 in less than a month, much of it in small increments like $25 and $50 gifts, he says.

With social services agencies straining under demand, Lisa Courtice, CEO of United Way of Central Ohio, is seeing generosity, too. The agency that serves as a “systemic umbrella” to raise and deploy money for basic needs raised $1.7 million for COVID relief in a few short weeks, “new money from donors we had never heard from before, who are quick to want to be part of the solution and engage,” Courtice says. Businesses have “been even kinder and more open.”