Washington • When the coronavirus outbreak hit Utah, Rita Wright knew she would need to shutter the Springville Museum of Art, sadly turning away residents and visitors, school groups and weddings.

Some grants were returned.

Utah’s “Life Elevated” became, “Life interrupted.”

And Wright, the director of the landmark museum, doesn’t see a return to normal anytime soon. It could be 18 months to two years, she said, before people feel free to wander the halls to peruse the paintings or show off their masterfully crafted quilts or slice into a wedding cake in front of their families and friends.

“It's a killer for us for at least a year,” said Wright. “It's going to be two years before we're really back to where we were.”

She acknowledged she may be “overly cautious,” but it's reality.

Most Utahns believe it’s going to take a while, too, to return to normal — whatever that normal may be.

A Salt Lake Tribune/Suffolk University poll of voters intending to cast ballots in Utah’s June 30 GOP primary found that some 57% believe it will take upward of a year to return to pre-pandemic life, a number that includes a more optimistic 28% who think it’ll take between three to six months to get there.

Some 22% say it’ll take one to two years, while 13% of those polled think life will never return to normal. Less than 3% of those surveyed think it will take more than two years while 4% said they were unsure.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The split among Utahns shows how unsure everyone is about the future.

Needed: A vaccine

“What we’re really looking for is a vaccine,” Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, said in an interview. “I mean, that’s what everyone’s saying, right? We need people to have the ability to be immune to the disease without getting it and getting sick and being hospitalized. And that’ll provide us a lot of confidence to, you know, shake hands again, go to the office without a face covering on, go to a big concert with a lot of crowds.”

If — and it's a big if — a vaccine can be curated, tested and mass produced by fall or early winter, then maybe life can return to somewhat normal, she added.

“But time will tell for us,” Dunn said. “I mean, there’s still trials to be done on that [vaccine]. But even when we get it, we’re not going to have enough for every Utahn, so we’re going to have to prioritize the vaccine. So I think we’re definitely a year out from, you know, that confident back-to-the-way-of-life-for-every-Utahn feeling.”

And with the trend of coronavirus cases rising in Utah as well as many other states, the virus is still going to haunt those who want to return to life as usual.

“That’s what keeps us all kind of on edge in public health right now,” Dunn said. “We are certainly only at the end of the beginning.”

The Tribune/Suffolk University poll of Utahns who said they will vote in the GOP primary appears to match the response nationally from people about when the pandemic will ebb and normal life will once again flow.

Jon Last, president of the New York-based Sports and Leisure Research Group, has created a “Back to Normal Barometer” to study the feelings of Americans on what consumers think about the pandemic, what it will take to bring them back to normal — and what that new normal will look like.

“Those [poll] numbers seem to be in line with what we are seeing nationally,” Last said. “An increasing majority of our respondents have indicated that they will return to favorite activities within two to three months of 'all clear,' but there is still high uncertainty as to when that 'all clear' will present itself.”

Last says the group's research shows an increase in people's willingness to reengage in their favorite leisure activities, with an uptick from a third in April who were ready to jump back in to more than half now.

“That said, there is still a substantial group of about 25% to 30% who indicate that they will not resume these activities absent a medical breakthrough,” Last said. “The balance of consumers are seeking a variety of other assurances, typically from local government or medical authorities.”

And most people want to hear from their local health officials because the virus outbreak can be regionally different.

It’s telling that epidemiologists are very wary about returning to any kind of normal without an effective vaccine or treatment.

More than a year

More than half said it would be more than a year before they stopped donning a mask in public or would attend a sporting event, concert or play.

Kathleen Sebelius, who served as secretary of health and human services (HHS) under President Barack Obama, said she could envision being back to normal in a year — if there’s a working vaccine and the public gets vaccinated.

“If you have less than half of the population willing to even be vaccinated, you’re still at this Catch-22 of, you know, a disease that’s circulating without a lot of opportunity to stop it,” Sebelius said Thursday. “So I think when we get back to our old normal is probably when we have a mostly/fully vaccinated country. … It could be we can achieve that in a year. I think that will be pretty record pace. But that could happen.”

It's hard for anyone to really know when all that would fall into place, either, because of the spikes in the coronavirus cases across the country and the lack of an identified vaccine.

“It’s hard for me to believe that public health officials will give blessings to those larger gatherings of people all over the country if we really have not contained the virus over the summer,” Sebelius said.

And even if a vaccine is miraculously found, can the government manufacture enough doses for everyone? When Sebelius headed America’s health agency in 2009 and the H1N1 virus emerged, she says it was lucky to find a vaccine that required only a single dose. Some other vaccines take multiple doses, and getting them out to the public is a major challenge.

“We didn't do such a swell job with [personal protective equipment] or distribution of ventilation,” Sebelius said of the response to the current outbreak. “So, you know, if the feds are going to step out of the way, which the president seems delighted to do, I don't know who puts that plan together, who prioritizes, who gets vaccinated first.”

A new normal

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who headed HHS under President George W. Bush and dealt with the avian flu during his tenure, had a more nuanced response when asked when life would return to normal.

He said when he was secretary, he traveled to areas under constant threat of terrorism. On one visit to Pakistan, he visited a city that had been bombed several times in the preceding weeks and he was “fascinated by how normal life seemed in the city.

“People went to work, shopped and seemed to find a sense of fulfillment,” Leavitt recalled, noting that he expressed his wonderment to a local official who counseled him that all life involves risk.

“COVID-19 is a new risk that we are all going to be dealing with much longer than a year,” Leavitt wrote in an email. “The risks within specific geographies will expand and contract. There will probably be times when the virus interrupts our travel plans, or causes us to change our behavior. People will still be getting the virus and when they do, it will be traumatic for them and their families.

“But we will begin to adapt toward a feeling of normality as we learn to make individual decisions that help us avoid the virus,” Leavitt continued. “We will begin to see ‘normality’ is a feeling, more than specific state of activities.”