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Can the "new normal" ever go back to the old one?

The New Normal: This is your life
The New Normal: This is your life 07:42

If you're looking for a window on the new normal, it may very well be made of plexiglass.  Russ Miller, who manages TAP Plastics in San Leandro, California, says business is booming. "It's absolutely insanely busy. In 40 years of doing this, I've never seen anything like this."

Miller said that as soon as the number of COVID-19 cases exploded, so did sales of the transparent acrylic barriers.

Plexiglass dividers are just one sign of the way Americans' lives have changed because of coronavirus. CBS News

"The first customers were the large grocery stores," he said. "Plastic sheets for between the customer and the cashier."

Already plexiglass barriers are popping up in reception areas, office cafeterias, and hair and nail salons, which raises the question: As we all begin to emerge from our pandemic isolation, will we find ourselves still separated from each other?

"I did get contacted by a nursery school, and they wanted ones to put between the kids who are sleeping on the floor during naptime," Miller said.

Correspondent Mo Rocca asked, "Does that make you kinda of sad?"

"I have four kids, and this is just one more problem that the kids have to deal with at school that is just sad. It's just not good," Miller replied.

One of the first times the phrase "the new normal" appeared in print was in 1918, just after the end of World War I. And with every cataclysmic event since, there have been predictions about how life will change.

This one's no exception. 

"Every cashier is going to want protection," Miller said, "Part of the new normal, unfortunately. Yeah, you know, I'm an optimist. I want it to be like it was."

Adam Alter, a psychology professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, said, "Behaviors change, but they always change for shorter periods than we anticipate or than a lot of people expect."

He points out that the phrase "the new normal" was much used during the last two decades, notably after the 2008 financial crisis. "People said, you know, 'This is the new normal. You're gonna have to be much more careful about your spending.' It was also about saying to consumers, 'Banks and other institutions will be forced to behave better in the future. And so with luck we'll avert future crises like this one.'"

But fewer than ten years later, the government loosened the major financial protections. Change didn't last.

Alter said, "I think we'll see the same thing after the pandemic as well. I think when you're in the midst of an event it's concrete, it's very present, it's all that surrounds you, and it takes up your whole attentional field. But I think as it passes, the vast majority of our behaviors will return to the way they were."

But some changes will stick. Can we even remember what it was like to fly before 9/11?  

"We instituted a whole lot of different policies," Alter said. "The way we traveled changed, the way we entered buildings changed. Security in general was much tighter in every respect."

Not that there hasn't been a lot of grumbling about the long lines and privacy intrusions. Alter said many Americans are less welcoming of new norms that feel imposed: "A lot of people just say, 'You know what? I've got plenty of freedom. I'm good.' There are other people in the population who, I think, are more naturally resistant to being told pretty much anything.  You could say, 'Don't do this thing that will protect thousands of people,' or, 'Don't do this thing that will keep you safe,' and they say, 'Don't tell me what to do! That's not something I'm willing to accept.'"

Now, it's not that humans aren't capable of change over relatively short periods of time. Think about this: twenty years ago almost no one had a smartphone. And now, according to Alter, "Seventy-five percent of American adults say they can reach their phones without moving their feet 24 hours a day – which means their phones are either under their pillows or on their nightstand table, [or] they're in their pockets."

On average, he said, Americans will spend fifteen years of their lives looking at their smartphones.  

Rocca said, "Had Steve Jobs strode out onto the stage with the first iPhone and said, 'All of you will buy this device and start using it now,' it probably would not have worked out so well?"

"It would not," Alter said. "If the government had said, for example, 'Everyone is mandated to buy a device,' the attitudes would have been very, very, very different."

Whatever the new normal ends up looking like, Alter said some people may actually begin pining for lockdown life.

"And as soon as you're being forced to move around again, I think we'll start to stay, 'Remember when we could just sit on the couch?'"

As restaurants reopen, customers and wait staff will find a new world.    CBS News

Restaurateur and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich said she hopes there are elements of our life in isolation that will be part of our new normal: "The planes are not flying overhead as much. The birds are singing. Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but I kind of like it."

She said this period reminds her of her childhood in Istria, once a part of Italy. "This is how I grew up, you know? And the seasons with what we ate. And, you know, I did help grandma in the gardens harvest the potatoes, the beans, the peas, whatever, the shallots, whatever was in season."

While Bastianich hopes that out of this people will continue to cook at home, she's also a business woman., with restaurants in New York and beyond. She knows that eateries, bars and stores can only reopen if social distancing becomes a norm, at least for the foreseeable future.

"There are already apps out there where the client can log into the restaurant's menu and order directly," she said. "The waiter doesn't have to take your order. Your order goes in the kitchen. The waiter will just serve it with the mask [and] the gloves, change the gloves with each serving. It's just a precaution that needs to be taken."

"The first time you're really dealing with your server is when the food is delivered?" asked Rocca.

"Exactly. I think the communication will happen a lot on the computer."

"Do people need restaurants?"

"Absolutely!" Bastianich replied. "The word 'restaurant' is from the word restore, a refuge if you will, for travelers, of people going, meeting new people. So restaurants, I think, will always be part of society."

"So you heard it here: The new normal will include restaurants?"

"Yes, absolutely! I have no doubt."

But that new normal may include barriers for tables made of, yes, plexiglass.

Tables may be separated by clear plastic barriers, making it harder to eavesdrop.  CBS News

Rocca said, "I love starting conversations with the next table."

"I know. I know, we are social creatures," Bastianich said. "I get it, I get it. But you're gonna have to calm yourself down a little bit! You're gonna have to sort of pull that in. So, you have to follow the rules, Mo. You have to follow the rules, you hear me?"

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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: George Pozderec.

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