It’s been 129 days since the NBA officially announced its shutdown and played its last regular-season game of 2020. That’s notable because for most Americans, that’s when COVID-19 went from a hypothetical problem mostly affecting strangers on the other side of the planet to a U.S. issue taking tangible bites out of Americans’ day-to-day lives.
And as PYMNTS data demonstrated over the course of the great lockdown, the chomps just kept on coming – and eating away more with each bite. Consumers lost jobs, burned through savings, worried that their businesses would never reopen or feared they would become casualties of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of some 140,000 Americans to date.
However, COVID-related lockdowns have largely come to an end nationwide, though recent flare-ups of the pandemic have caused some locations to dial back – and, in some cases, reverse – the reopening process. In most places, things are trying very hard to get back to something like normal.
Restaurants are open again – albeit with caps on how many people can be served at once and with wait staff wearing masks. Shops are reopening, again with capacity limits (although many consumers have developed a real penchant for shopping digitally). Even the NBA is set to start playing again starting on July 30. But they won’t be playing at home – according to the text of nearly every recent article on the subject, the NBA is entering “the bubble.”
The Disney Bubble, to be specific – as nearly every team in professional will be heading to Orlando, Florida’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which is housed in the most magical place on Earth: Disney World. And for those players, it really will be a small world after all – as players, coaches, team staff and anyone actively participating in the remainder of the 2020 season will be quarantined together.
Admittedly, on first glance, it does sound a little like the setup to a post-apocalyptic version of the ubiquitous early-1990s Disney advertisements that used to be paired with the Super Bowl:
“Your league has just survived a black swan health crisis that shut down the entire American economy. It’s time to reopen – what are you going to do? We’re going to Disney World!!! And Locking Ourselves In! And Everyone Else Out!”
But while there might be a small temptation to roll one’s eyes at the concept of locking an entire sports league into a seven-dwarfs-certified quarantine bubble, as it turns out, the NBA is far from the only entity looking to get back to normal and stay out of trouble with the help of a safety bubble.
In fact, the market has found all kinds of ways to sell consumers a little of their old lives back – wrapped up, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically, in an extra bubble of safety.
Getting a Little Literal
When we say people are looking for bubbles to help them integrate back into society, we aren’t speaking entirely metaphorically about extra features and add-ons that offer additional layers of safety and separation. We’ll get to those more interpretive takes on selling a safety bubble in just a second – but not before we note that sometimes, a bubble isn’t a concept. It’s a literal bubble, showing up in all kinds of locations to help the day-to-day consumer and worker feel that much safer getting back to normal.
In New York City, for example, resident Theresa Smythe found that a clear plastic pop-up backpacking tent allowed a literal opportunity for friends to shrink-wrap each other in order to hang out safely. The first backpack bubble event was reportedly a happy hour, and Smythe has since expanded the bubble activities to include movies and birthday parties.
But for those who want the psychological comfort of a bubble without having to wear one at all times, Cairo-based architect Mohamed Radwan is redesigning physical workspaces for safety. The open floor plans of the present and the cubicles of the past are to be replaced with a series of hexagonal pods, each of which would feature a single desk and be equipped with built-in air purifiers and airtight doors.
And bubbles can also be used for working out more safely. Vermont’s Alpenglow Fitness studio has built bubbles around its exercise bikes so that spin enthusiasts can take their classes while separated by plastic barriers.
And lest one think “bubble life” is only for work and working out, countless restaurants around the world have attempted variations on the theme – and even entire rock concerts are leveraging bubble technology. The Flaming Lips have encased themselves in round plastic bubbles on stage, as well as their audience members.
About now, we imagine, many readers are wondering whether their commitment to getting back to normal runs deep enough to resort to wearing a bubble, working in a bubble, exercising in a bubble or rocking out in a bubble. For them, we have some good news: There are ways to buy the bubble, metaphorically speaking – sometimes at a premium price.
Traveling in a Bubble
A luxury vacation is a hard thing to sell shrink-wrapped in plastic. But according to a recent CNN report, luxury operators are getting incredibly incentive in finding high-end ways to build in all the safety benefits of bubble life for travelers who are willing to pay top dollar.
Demand for private flights has soared, and increasing numbers of luxury travel brands are building private jet trips into the price of a package in an attempt to lure the safety-conscious and well-heeled by offering anxiety relief.
For instance, CNN reported that Caldera House in Wyoming is offering a four-night experience that is all about socially distanced luxury in the scenic American West. The package starts with round-trip private charter flights to the hotel, with a two- or four-bedroom suite with a kitchen that can be fully stocked upon arrival.
If rustic charm isn’t one’s speed, the Four Seasons Resort Lanai in Hawaii is offering a similar private-jet inclusive package that spans a week, according to CNN. The resort sells its spa features, nationally ranked golf course and incredibly remote locations to safety-conscious guests.
And while built-in private air travel to exotic and luxurious remote locations is an option for some consumers for whom money is no object, the metaphorical travel bubble is open to travelers of all income levels.
For example, if one wants to get back into the more literal bubble groove of things, one of Airbnb’s popular rentals this summer is a one-bedroom, one-bathroom dome, powered by solar energy with a rainwater collection system, which is advertised as an “off-grid adobe dome” in Terlingua, Texas.
Situated near Big Bend National Park, the property is geared toward “being one with nature” and away from society. But, the listing notes, one does need to make a fair commitment to getting back to nature in a very up-close-and-personal way.
“The dome remains available as a refuge during these uncertain times, though we do recommend that travelers bring their own groceries to cook in, as we don’t know what will be open and what won’t,” the owners explained on their Airbnb listing. “The dome is an earthen structure, with a cob (adobe) barrier to provide shelter from the desert elements such as heat, cold, winds and rain. But it does get rather warm in the summer and only has a composting toilet, which sits in an outhouse next door.”
Oh, and then there’s this disclaimer: “Bugs and other desert creatures tend to culminate in the summer months. Don’t be surprised if you encounter a scorpion or black widow spider, and don’t be frightened either, as they are relatively harmless and non-threatening.”
If trading the risk of COVID-19 infraction for a potential scorpion bite doesn’t seem quite like the right option, Travel + Leisure has spent much of the summer reviewing remote tiny houses for rent. And well-spaced-out Airbnb rentals are popping up all over America, available by the interstate highway system for intrepid travelers.
We suspect many will be setting out on the road to remote Airbnb rentals, extra-tiny boutique hotels and the vast and various glamping options for those who have rented RVs for their summer vacations.
Because even as things are reopening, it seems everyone is looking for a bubble to keep them safe while they are trying to get back out into a world where there is no vaccine to protect them. Sometimes those bubbles will be literal, and sometimes they will be structural.
But they will all be built to give customers an opportunity to buy back something that COVID-19 stripped away 129 days ago: the confidence to do the things they want without fear of infection.