2020: Things that changed in the tumultuous year may never go back to the way they were

A file image taken Sept. 9, 2020 show a home office set up, including a laptop computer with Zoom video conferencing software. (Photo by Phil Barker/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 completely upended our society in countless ways, from our social connections and daily routines, to how businesses operate (or don’t operate), to the constant worry of you or a loved one getting sick. 

Some changes, such as restaurants being limited to carryout or the cancellation of concerts and sporting events, may cease as the threat of virus spread diminishes with the distribution of a successful vaccine.

Other responses to the pandemic may have sped up the adoption of digital technologies and transformed industries. 

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Only time will tell how the global crisis ultimately shapes our world, but here are some of the ways it may change in the long term:

Remote work

The pandemic has drastically altered how companies operate, forcing tens of millions of employees to quickly adapt to telecommuting out of fears of further spread from working together indoors. This has meant the widespread adoption of communication tools such as Zoom, Slack or Microsoft Teams for employees.

In the long term, companies may find that employees prefer a choice of both working in and out of the office. 

A survey conducted months into the pandemic by PwC, one of the world’s largest professional services firms, found a majority of U.S. office workers (83%) said they want to work from home at least one day a week.

"Hybrid teams — we’re seeing some of that now. A lot of organizations have 50% capacity, where some people are going in on certain days. And so we’re going to see this kind of fluid presence of people in and out of the organization," said Debra Dinnocenzo, founder and president of VirtualWorks!, a consulting and training firm that specializes in remote work issues.

"From a leadership perspective, you can never assume you’re going to see the same people at the same desks, visually in front of you ever again. They’re going to move in and out," Dinnocenzo added.

The same PwC survey found that 73% percent of U.S. executives feel the shift to home for their employees was a success. And the ability to hire workers remotely means access to a larger talent pool.

"Organizations can now access talent from wherever," Dinnocenzo added. "We’ve gotten rid of geographic restrictions."

Of course, the experience of remote work can vary based on industry, job role and other factors — and it’s not for everyone. Some may crave working alongside colleagues again where they’re better able to collaborate, or perhaps to escape the balancing act of work and home duties.

Ultimately, experts believe it won’t be the same office employees left behind in the spring. 

"It’s not the new normal, but the next normal, because who knows where we’re going from there. I personally think, having been doing this since 1999, it’s pretty exciting," Dinnocenzo said.

Exodus from large cities

Given that more people are either able to work remotely or out of work entirely, this has also meant more people are moving out of big cities to more affordable suburbs or smaller towns — at least for now.

Data from the U.S. Postal Service shows that more than 15.9 million people moved between February to July 2020, an increase of 3.92% from the same time in 2019.

A Pew Research survey conducted in June also found that roughly one-in-five U.S. adults (22%) said they either changed their residence due to the pandemic or know someone who did. The reasons varied from moving out of college campuses that closed, housing they could no longer afford, or communities they perceived as unsafe during the outbreak.

A survey by the University of Vermont's Center for Research on Vermont and Vermont Futures Project found that over a third of those who moved to the state during the pandemic said they are "likely" or "very likely" to stay there following a return to normalcy.

Data from the real estate brokerage RedFin found that New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles had the biggest amount of users looking to leave. 

"While there has been a huge increase in the number of people looking online at homes in small towns, the long-term impact of the pandemic on people actually moving from one part of the country to another remains to be seen," said Redfin economist Taylor Marr.

"The pandemic and the work-from-home opportunities that come with it is accelerating migration patterns that were already in place toward relatively affordable parts of the country," Marr added.

Movie industry

While the full impact of the pandemic on the film industry remains to be seen, it’s becoming clear that streaming is a large focus for Hollywood studios in the future.

"I think we’re looking at the ramp-up to the really big streaming wars," said Alison Willmore, a film critic for Vulture and New York Magazine. 

Earlier this fall, Walt Disney Co. released its $200 million "Mulan" film for $29.99 on its streaming service, Disney Plus.

Warner Bros. Pictures announced earlier this month that all of its 2021 film slate will debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max in the U.S. The studio, which has generally ranked among the top two in market share over the past decade alongside Walt Disney, called it a one-year plan amid closed or reduced capacity at movie theaters due to the pandemic.

"Obviously if it works out incredibly well, then they’re going to be incentivized to keep going," Willmore said of Warner Bros.‘ announcement. "Theaters are already hurting obviously, and I think the fact that there’s going to be so much interest and focus on streaming next year is going to make it even rougher for them."

There’s also widespread acknowledgement that the traditional 90-day theatrical window — the time between theatrical release and home video — is over. This summer, Universal struck a deal with AMC Theaters, the world’s largest movie theater chain, for just a 17-day window.

"I think that window is definitely gone. The window has been shrinking anyway. There used to be a much bigger gap. I do think it is forever going to be pretty small now," Willmore added.

The impact of the pandemic could also mean a change in what it means to go to the movie theater. Think more theaters with reclining chairs, the ability to book your seats online and food and drink menus that elevate the experience.

Personal finances

The COVID-19 pandemic may end up changing how people manage their money. 

Business closures to halt the spread of the virus left a record amount of Americans out of work. But it also meant that savings for some increased in 2020, as many were able to put away cash that they normally would have used for vacations or dining out. 

Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows an increase in total savings deposits at all depository institutions in 2020, compared to years past.

Two-thirds (66%) of U.S. adults reported spending the same or less during the pandemic than they were at the same time in 2019, according to a survey by the consumer credit reporting company Experian.

The survey found that respondents with jobs were predominantly the ones who were able to increase their savings. Just 8% of unemployed survey participants said they were saving more, while 21% of retired respondents reported putting more money into savings in 2020.

Almost half of respondents (48%) said they were able to use a portion or all of their stimulus check to contribute to their savings, while 33% said they weren't able to save any — and the remaining did not receive one.

The drastic economic downturn during the pandemic may further highlight the need to have an emergency savings and having lasting effects on Americans in the years to come.

"When you live through a financial trauma, you actually get rewired and that experience is triggered even after it's no longer applicable," Ulrike Malmendier, a professor of behavioral economics at the University of California, Berkeley, told Newsweek. "If you live through a deep recession or a stock market drop, you act for several decades like you think it will happen again at any moment."


The pandemic has shuttered restaurants from coast to coast, and how many emerge on the other side of COVID-19 is unclear. There will likely be fewer independent restaurants, and they may operate a little differently.

"The market is going to be much more heavily chain-focused because they’ll be the ones that don’t decline as much," said David Henkes, a senior principal with Restaurant Business sister company Technomic. "For independents that do survive, you’ve got to do some shifting in your business model. Everybody’s going to need off-premise, delivery, takeout and catering."

The dining rooms closed, restaurants have had no choice but to rely on carry out and delivery opens to continue the much-needed source of revenue. Delivery options will likely continue once the threat of COVID-19 has dissipated, whether it be the restaurant’s own drivers or use of a third-party delivery service such as DoorDash, Grubhub or Uber Eats. 

Restaurant chains like Noodles & Co., Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald’s, Applebee’s and Panera Bread, are among the many that offered free delivery since the shutdown began.

"I do think this is a catalyst for some change in the third-party delivery business," Henkes said. "We’d been talking about how it was ripe for potential change, and this accelerates that."

The crisis has also accelerated the growth of ghost kitchens, or delivery-only, online restaurants. Some establishments financially hit by shutdowns have invested in their virtual expansion.

Euromonitor International, a market research firm, estimated this summer that ghost kitchens could create a $1 trillion opportunity for food delivery by 2030.

Additionally, salad bar chains or all-you-can-eat buffets at restaurants and casinos have either closed or adapted during the pandemic — and returning customers post-pandemic might find a few lasting changes.

Golden Corral switched to cafeteria-style dining at many locations with an attendant dishing out food for customers rather than individuals serving themselves. Some restaurants offer pre-portioned foods for customers to grab.

Golden Corrall President and CEO Lance Trenary told HuffPost that it’s "still not clear what the ‘new normal’ for all of us will be" after the pandemic, but promised that the buffet chain will "adapt to meet [customers’] needs and exceed their expectations."

Grocery shopping

When the threat of the coronavirus arrived to the U.S. and restaurants closed, Americans flocked to supermarkets and seemed to develop a new relationship with their kitchen — baking their way through stay-at-home orders.

Grocers saw eight years of spending growth packed into one month, according to a 2020 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report by the Food Industry Association (FMI). Roughly 78% of customers had made changes to their buying habits, with many also turning to online grocery shopping.

"FMI projected in a report we released in January of this year that online food and beverage sales would grow to be $143 billion by 2025," said Steve Markenson, director of research at FMI. "However, the stay-at-home orders and requirements for social distancing that have come with COVID-19 pandemic have sent the numbers of online shoppers soaring."

Grocery shopping in the post-pandemic era could mean fewer trips to the store for customers, and more supermarkets and smaller grocers continuing to offer curbside pickup or delivery options.

And perhaps it will be the end — or at least an indefinite pause — on in-store sample stations.


The coronavirus pandemic sparked a sharp increase in health care providers launching or expanding their telehealth services for patients looking to avoid in-person visits.

Telehealth visits and remote patient monitoring was on the rise prior to the pandemic, but since March, use has risen dramatically. 

Meg Barron, the vice president of digital innovation at the American Medical Association (AMA), estimated that between 60% to 90% of physicians are currently using some sort of telehealth service. About half are estimated to be using these services for the first time, Barron added.

"More physicians than ever have recognized digital health tools as an advantage for driving efficiency and safety in health care," she said, adding that the challenge moving forward will be optimizing virtual care — both in terms of technology and regulation.

At the onset of the pandemic, almost every U.S. state took action to advance telehealth services through gubernatorial executive orders, insurance regulation and directives, and Medicaid bulletins, according to the AMA. 

Sandy Marks, AMA senior assistant director of federal affairs, cautioned that telehealth services could return to only being available to Medicare patients in rural areas following the public health emergency. The association has called on Congress to pass legislative proposals that would lift geographic and site-of-service restrictions, allowing telehealth services to continue to be delivered nationwide.


The rapid move to online learning, with many lacking sufficient training, resources or support, has presented challenges and exposed the digital divide that exists between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds. For many teachers, the pandemic has opened their eyes to how profoundly some students are struggling to navigate the demands of school and home life.

But even so, some believe that a new hybrid model of education will emerge after the pandemic — or at the very least underscore the need to rethink the future of education for children in a digital-first society.

"I think that virtual learning/hybrid learning is around to say," said Marianne Manzler, a ninth grade humanities teacher and writer in Denver, Colorado. "Now that we’ve seen how quickly we can adjust an age-old system — and have seen how well self-paced learning can work in certain instances — I think it’s going to be hard to go back to the old ways."

One analysis by John McLaughlin, a director at ChanceLight Education and author of multiple books on education, also predicted that remote learning will become "foundational" in American schools, "not because it is effective, which it is, but because it is less expensive." He argues that the effectiveness and cost savings will be simply "too compelling to ignore."

Some have suggested that the pandemic may also lead to a greater push for vocational skills and training, as the pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the global economy and our supply chain.

Many parents have found themselves facing the enormous task of balancing childcare with a full time job throughout the course of the pandemic, public recognition of the essential role schools play in our society has "skyrocketed," according to a report by The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.

"As young people struggle to learn from home, parents’ gratitude for teachers, their skills, and their invaluable role in student well-being, has risen," the report states. Given this public support, the Brookings Institution believes there’s a window of opportunity moving forward to leverage support for school systems from the government to make them stronger.

The pandemic has greatly disrupted higher education too. 

Prospective college students are now more open to online and hybrid formats of learning or accelerated programs than in years past, writes Adam Weinberg, president of Denison University in Ohio, for USA Today.

Denison now offers a hybrid course design that allows students to participate in person or remotely from their homes.

Weinberg also suggests that pressure will be put on universities to offer micro-credentials to focus on more narrow career goals, or more tailored academic programs.

"Students will be much more vocal about the terms under which they are willing to invest the time and financial resources," Weinberg writes.


The pandemic decimated the global travel industry overnight, grounding many of the world’s commercial airplanes and leading to border closures of many countries fearful of a rise in COVID-19 cases from visitors.

As various restrictions ease throughout the world, some believe there will be a shift to booking travel through agents due to their valuable knowledge.

"I think what 2020 has shown and taught us is the expertise and financial protection of booking through a travel agent often outweighs the amount you pay in commission," Conde Nast Traveller sustainability editor Juliet Kinsman told NatGeo.

Some have suggested that struggling airlines will need to make it easier for travelers to change their flights in the future. Prior to the pandemic, this came with a hefty fee. But balancing safety with profit will need to be a priority.

"It’s not ever really going to be acceptable, I don’t think, for someone who is unwell to feel that they’re being made to fly," said JetBlue chief executive Robin Hayes said during a Washington Post Live discussion earlier this year.

Face masks will almost certainly be more generally accepted and utilized around the world post-pandemic.

Cruise lines, another area of the travel industry that was rocked during the crisis, will likely implement stricter health screenings prior to boarding and enhanced hygiene procedures on the ship, according to Future Cruise, a digital magazine for the cruise industry.

The traditional buffets and self-service areas popular on cruise ships may be replaced with table service. Cruise lines may also add a greater number of medical staff and facilities, while reducing the number of cabins to prevent large outbreaks and quarantine situations in the future.

This story was reported from Cincinnati.