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What Pandemic-Related Changes Will and Won’t Go Away


Larry Newman, executive director of Diamond City Partnership, Wilkes-Barre’s downtown management organization.


Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, PA - Will life really go back to the way it was? And if so, to what extent?


Wearing face masks, working from home, and talking to store clerks through plexiglass are just a few of the things that became part of daily life for some people over the past year.


A cross-section of leaders in the medical, government, and business sectors offered insights and predictions as to what might disappear and what’s here to stay.


A medical perspective

Gerald Maloney, chief medical officer for Geisinger Hospitals, was deeply involved in the health system’s operational response to the pandemic since the first weekend last March.


“That included everything from helping to quickly establish policies and protocols for any number of things to figuring out how to respond to any unexpected situations,” Maloney said.


He played a major role in addressing issues around shortages in personal protective equipment and staff shortages.


Maloney said Geisinger’s use of telemedicine — connecting patients with doctors by phone or video conference — “went into high gear” during the pandemic and likely will remain more heavily utilized.


“We were concerned older people wouldn’t have the technological skills to be able to do something like that, and we found out, to a large extent, that that wasn’t true — that either they had the skills or somebody in the family had them. So, we were able to provide video visits for a lot of people and enable them to keep their health care up to date that way,” Maloney said.


Administrators also developed skills in redeploying some health system personnel to tasks that weren’t normally in their job descriptions.


“For example, we very quickly realized the question wasn’t did we have access to enough ventilators, because we did, but did we have enough access to staff who were trained in using them,” Maloney said.


“We were able to figure out that we could take respiratory therapists and kind of have them exclusively deal with the patients that their training made them especially suited for, and some of the more routine care that they (provided) could be assigned to other staff,” Maloney said. “For instance, we could have nurses give breathing treatments.”


“The ability to do that will stay. Now, we’re not going to keep doing that; we’re going to have people revert back to the job that they were originally trained for. But just the ability to mobilize the overall health care workforce and to kind of move them into the area in which they are most needed at the time, I think that skill is something we won’t soon forget,” Maloney said.


The state's mask mandate went into place in April 2020


Masking & distancing

Maloney said masking and distancing has proven society can prevent germs from spreading.


“Do I think we’re going to mask and distance forever from here on out? No I don’t. But I think the learning is that when it’s appropriate to do so, when it’s appropriate to ramp efforts like that up, like next January if there’s a surge of influenza, we know that we can quell that by having everybody put a mask on,” Maloney said.


“Are we going to do that? I don’t know. But at least we’ve learned and we’ve been able to demonstrate that that stuff is effective and we can keep people well if we do them,” he said.


Maloney said it might be difficult to try to institute masking recommendations in the future “because people are so sick of it, right? Everybody’s tired of masking.”


“But it would have been interesting had masking not taken on the political life that it did. So, if masks were just considered to be public health measures when they were started rather than being political statements and things that, you know, exemplified my rights, I think they would have been accepted a lot more. And if we ever needed to do it again, it wouldn’t be seen as such a burden,” he said.


Maloney said hand sanitizer stations should remain installed everywhere they are now, “and it’s perfectly OK for the plexiglass partitions to stay as well because, again, you don’t need to breathe in what I breathe out.”

“If we can transact business, if I can go to the grocery store and talk to you with a plastic sheet between us, that’s perfectly fine and I think some of that might stay and I don’t think it’s a bad idea for it to stay. I don’t see people tearing them out after they put them in. Not sure if new constructions will include them or not,” he said.



A business perspective

Larry Newman, executive director of Diamond City Partnership, Wilkes-Barre’s downtown management organization, said central business districts have been among the most-disrupted work environments during the pandemic.


“Overnight, we went from having more than 6,000 people in office buildings in downtown to having most of those folks working remotely … as a result of the work-from-home orders,” Newman said.


Downtown restaurants, retailers and entertainment venues suffered from the lack of foot traffic.


Newman believes “pent-up demand” from those “desperate to socialize” will create a surge in business when people feel comfortable patronizing larger venues. But will the foot traffic return?


To be certain, many company officials will decide employee productivity remained high, and employees work just as well or even better from home. For some, that will continue, Newman said.


But employers also realize the importance of in-person social interaction among employees, and many people are suffering from “ZOOM fatigue” and are eager to work away from home.


Newman expects the average square footage of office space per employee will increase after steadily shrinking over the past several years.


“I think there is going to be in many cases a reversal of that in some of the offices that return because people are … going to want more space, and employees … are going to demand more space out of safety concerns,” Newman said. “There are a lot of people who are currently prognosticating the death of the office building. I think that while things are pretty grim right now, the office building is not going to disappear.”


Newman said some wonder if brick-and-mortar retail “is ever really going to come back,” given how e-commerce and online shopping boomed during the pandemic.


But, retailing in the United States “was in shake-out mode” well before the pandemic, with some retail sectors and certain chains starting to struggle. “The pandemic simply served as an accelerator for that trend,” Newman said.


Newman said e-commerce is actually a money loser for retailers unless they have e-commerce operations and storefronts that can work together seamlessly.


Luzerne County Manager Dave Pedri said some county departments have ‘thrived’ under work-from-home plans.



County government

Luzerne County Manager David Pedri said the county’s more than 1,400 employees had to adapt the ways in which they continued providing services to the county’s more than 320,000 residents and around 200,000 commuters during the pandemic, and many of those changes will remain in place.


“We changed a lot of our options to online and to mail-in. We have a ton of options now here at the Luzerne County Courthouse. Even things like gun permits,” Pedri said.


Previously, gun permit applicants did everything required for the permitting process in person.


“Now, you drop everything off, it gets processed and then they schedule you an appointment to come in for a socially distanced photo, one-on-one with the sheriff. It’s been moving so well, we will probably keep that system,” Pedri said.


Many county jobs such as corrections officers and 911 dispatchers have to work on-site, but many others can work remotely.


Although Pedri admittedly was “kind of slow to embrace a work-from-home remote workforce type of thing,” he’s seen that “some departments have not only survived but really thrived under this.”


Children and Youth Services case workers are one example. Reduced travel to and from the office means more time with children and the “output of more reports coming from that department,” Pedri said.


Pedri said the county will follow CDC guidelines for removing plexiglass partitions, but hand sanitizer stations will remain.


He also might re-institute some pandemic protocols such as requiring face masks in county buildings for flu outbreaks because they of their impact on county operations.


“What we’ve seen before is departments would get shut down. … Four clerks in the prothonotary’s office got sick because of the flu, for example,” Pedri said.


He noted that in July, eight sheriff’s deputies tested positive for COVID-19.


“That was a major issue,” Pedri said. “Then … it starts compounding (because) sheriffs are all over the place. Sheriffs provide security, sheriffs are in the courtroom, sheriffs are transporting prisoners. So, when those people start to get sick, that’s when everything kind of shut down from there.”


On a more personal note, Pedri said his experience as a youth sports coach during the pandemic taught him “how important it is to the youth to be able to keep a little bit of that normalcy, even if it’s sports or extracurricular activities or anything along those lines.”


He would oppose complete shutdowns of youth sports “if something like this should ever happen again” because there are “ways to do it safely.”


Wilkes-Barre Mayor George Brown poses for a picture in his office at Wilkes-Barre City Hall Tuesday, March 9, 2021.


City government

Wilkes-Barre Mayor George Brown said one of the first pandemic-related purchases the city made was an Aeroclave sanitizing system for city ambulances. It worked so well and efficiently, he other units for the police, health and public works departments and a second one for the fire department.


Those devices, which with related equipment cost about $15,000 each, will remain in service even after the pandemic.


“We have to make sure we take the proper precautions. We want to continue the proper practices to make sure our people are safeguarded,” Brown said.


Personnel in those departments also will continue to utilize personal protective equipment when appropriate, he said.


People can also expect to see Healthy Bear around in the future. The city made an educational video of the mascot the city health department created to teach children about hygiene during a pandemic and “can be an important tool to help educate children in the elementary school age groups,” Brown said.


An automated digital thermometer will remain in place at a City Hall entrance, as will hand sanitizing stations, and visitors will be asked to continue making appointments if they want to see a specific employee in person rather than drop in unannounced.


Brown said his decision on the removal of plexiglass barriers at service counters will be based on future input from city Health Director Hank Radulski.


“When the coronavirus hit us a year ago, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know the dimensions of how bad it would be,” Brown said. “We’ve learned a lot since then.”

Contact the writer:; 570-821-2110; @MocarskyCV

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