I flew to Arizona over Memorial Day weekend to see my sister. What should have been an unremarkable experience at the airport instead became something I’m not sure I’ll ever forget. Under any other circumstance and at any other time, the airport would have been bustling with activity and filled with bristling energy. Although I obviously expected something far less crowded, what I found was the complete absence of life; there was no one there, not a soul. Hopkins was empty. It was literally a ghost town; surreal and almost unnerving. I paused for a moment to take in the strangeness of this empty facility and when I stopped, my footfall created an echo and left me somewhat disoriented.
Where was I? Where was everybody else?
* * *
In the Arizona desert, there is a type of beauty found in the solitude of the rocks. In some cases, like The Wave on the slopes of the Coyote Buttes, there is a view that one could only describe as other-worldly, perhaps unearthly. The Wave literally looks like it sounds, as though water and sandstone somehow became one and etched itself forever across the landscape. At one point, before the land became completely arid, this formation of U-shaped troughs was fed and transported rainwater from a drainage basin. However, over time the basin shrank and eventually, The Wave carried water no more.
* * *
An airport without people to transport is no longer an airport. It is simply an enormous structure sat on a couple-square miles of a paved lot with lines painted all over the ground. With next to no planes taking off or landing, and only two TSA guards scanning bags, I walked to my gate wondering how all this empty space could be repurposed. Could we stage races here? I imagined people in cars, motorcycles, bikes, or even go-carts zipping all around the outdoor space...
And it was then that it struck me again — I wonder if this was our intention when we responded to COVID-19. Did we intend to completely shut down life as we’ve known it to slow the spread of the virus? Or did we shut everything down to buy ourselves time to figure out what we should do to slow the spread of the virus? Either way, what did we figure out exactly? It is a question that I’m not sure there is a good answer to. Maybe the question I’m trying to ask is to what end did we shut our lives down and where are we now?
* * *
In Arizona, the mulberries are in season and while I was there, I picked quite a few of them. Fresh mulberries are delicious with a perfect blend of sweet and tart. Although they can easily be found dry, you don’t see them fresh in grocery stores because they are too delicate to package and labor-intensive to de-stem. The berries are often pressed into wine and juice or made into jams and tea. If you’re unfamiliar with them, you may be surprised to know that they grow on trees.
“All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel…”
* * *
The nursery rhyme ran amusingly through my head as I continued towards my gate. As I looked through the window it seemed like every plane from every airline was parked.
“All around the empty airport, the airplanes all sat idle…”
Most of our organizations shut down business travel back in March. As a result of that action and several others restricting travel, it is estimated by the airline industry that there has been a 94% decrease in passenger volume during the COVID-19 crisis. Although I had read this statistic, I was still struck by the sheer number of planes parked all around the airport. All of them just lined up, silent and unmoving. Idle, and without anyone to engage them in flight, completely irrelevant.
Although I was determined not to think about work while I was with my family, as I finally sat down at my gate I did draw a parallel between the idle planes and our business of employee benefits. Because many of our benefits have sat idle while providers prepared for an influx of COVID-19 patients, we now have a lot to think about as we move forward. We have made the decision to reopen our doors and, with our reboarding process underway, it may be the perfect time to take a fresh look at our benefit offerings to determine what is relevant and what is not. In the same way that a plane is irrelevant and unnecessary if no one flies it, a benefit may be useless if no one is taking advantage of it.
It may even be time we ask if our past care was as necessary as once thought. It’s true with almost anything; you could offer the shiniest, most impressive, top-of-the-line widget but if no one wants it, uses it, or sees its relevance, it’s worth absolutely nothing.
As we’re all getting reacquainted with the new normal, now may be a good time to evaluate why our employees weren’t engaging completely in our offering. We can start with one simple question, "Is the benefit relevant?"
There is one major flaw in this comparison though: With employees returning to our workspaces, I’m 100% sure that our planes will again take to the sky and our airports will once more be (annoyingly) crowded. As such, I’ll leave you with this — despite this great pause in our collective lives, if you listen closely, you may just hear the faint echo of what things were like before this crisis. I challenge you to think about what worked and what didn’t before all of this; what is new, what is old, and what is our ultimate goal? As we reopen, let’s listen for those answers like we're listening for those boisterous plane engines that used to fill the sky. They're about to fire up again. Let's make sure we're ready when they start to roar.
About Health Action Council
Health Action Council is a not-for-profit 501(c)(6) organization representing mid and large-size employers that enhances human and economic health through thought leadership, innovative services and collaboration. It provides value to its members by facilitating projects that improve the quality and moderate the cost of healthcare purchased by its members for their employees, dependents and retirees.
Health Action Council also collaborates with key stakeholders - health plans, physicians, hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry - to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare in the community.