Lines Are Political. COVID-19 Highlights Just How Much

The coronavirus pandemic has forced more and longer lines and they’ll likely become yet another barrier for people already strapped for time. And they'll make some places exclusive.
Line with physical distancing
Customers in Paris, France stand in a line that has physical distancing measures in place to prevent COVID-19.  Photo by Chesnot (Getty Images)

I was waiting in a slow-moving line outside of an Italian deli in Edmonton when a man dressed in expensive-looking jeans approached and muttered there was no way in hell he’d wait. He turned around and walked away.

You’d think an adult man would be accustomed to lines. People in the U.S., for example, spend a lot of time waiting: seven minutes waiting for a coffee, 20 minutes in traffic, 32 minutes at a doctor’s office, according to a TIMEX study from 2012.


But the line outside of the shop is new: the coronavirus pandemic has forced more or longer queues in front of (and in) supermarkets, boutiques, and restaurants, with most establishments only allowing their stores to fill up to 50 percent capacity to allow people to maintain physical distancing. The goal is to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks while we wait for a vaccine.

New pandemic wait times even inspired an Italian developer to create a global interactive map that uses Google data to estimate wait times at local grocery stores and pharmacies. The map shows wait times as short as five minutes and as long as an hour.

While lines seem innocuous enough, longer wait times can lead to impatience or even aggressive behaviour, said MIT professor and expert in queuing psychology Richard Larson. Larson, also known as “Dr. Queue,” said queues whip up similar feelings as when you’re merging vehicles. If one driver cuts another off, the other driver may experience road rage—even though that person lost only a few seconds of time.

Queues aren’t just a catalyst for impatience and disappointment; they’re a social justice issue, experts say.

The truth is that some people are affected more than others. For example, a young professional with no dependents and flexible work hours is likely more equipped to adapt to long queues than an essential service worker or low-income family, said Agata Soroko, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa who focuses on poverty and inequality.


“Time is money in a lot of ways,” Soroko said. “That means, a lot of low-income workers are disadvantaged in this case.”

Low-income people tend to work longer hours, live further away from city centres where grocery stores, boutiques, and pharmacies are concentrated, and might not have the vehicle access or work flexibility to shop during the week at off-peak hours, Sokoro said.

So, long queues could become yet another barrier for people who are already strapped for time. They could also make businesses, including those offering entertainment, more exclusive.

As entertainment centres like art galleries, boutiques, and theatres start implementing physical distancing measures they’ll also be letting fewer people in at once, said Ziv Carmon, a marketing professor at INSEAD graduate business school.

Again, those people willing—and able—to wait will get to see the Basquiat originals at the MoMA or Van Gogh at the Art Gallery of Ontario. That is, unless businesses start offering entertainment digitally, which is difficult to do in a way that draws audiences, or keep their doors shut altogether until there’s a vaccine, Carmon said.

Even before the pandemic, lines weren’t exactly egalitarian. British philosopher and writer Julian Baggini wrote for the Guardian in 2017 and pointed out that the “first come, first serve” ethos of queuing doesn’t take diverse individual needs into account. Some businesses, such as amusement parks and airports, even allow people with deep pockets to pay to skip queues, Baggini said. Anyone who can afford priority boarding can hop to the front of the line or fly through security, while the rest of us are stuck waiting.


“Queues only equalise the people in them, they do nothing to address the inequalities that put people in different lines in the first place,” Baggini wrote.

For people who can’t escape lines, there are ways to avoid line-induced frustration. The most tangible solution is to stay distracted while waiting in line, several experts told VICE.

Larson suggested that people stuck waiting in lines during the pandemic era should scan around the store at nearby products and magazines or talk to other people waiting in the queue. Author Stephen King, who apparently reads 80 books a year, says he takes a book with him everywhere he goes. “There are all sorts of opportunities to dip in,” King wrote.

In the 50s, a boom in New York resulted in several high-rise condos being built. Soon after tenants moved in, they started complaining about long wait times to get into elevators during peak hours before and after work, Larson said. (The wait times usually hovered around two or three minutes.)

The solution: Mirrors. People were so distracted looking at themselves in the mirror—often using the extra time to straighten a tie or fix their hair—that they didn’t realize they were waiting, Larson said.

The complaints decreased significantly, but the wait times stayed the same, he added.

Keeping people distracted is the best way for businesses to keep their clientele happy, Carmon said.

Carmon offered some simple strategies that make wait times more bearable: shops can offer free WiFi, live entertainment, or streamed movies or music. Restaurants can distribute menus or small food and drink samples. Another pro tip? Businesses that overstate wait times usually see happier customers who express joy when their 20-minute wait only lasts 16.


Businesses have also found that serpentine lines—long, single queues that snake around—tend to make people feel better than several smaller lines for separate entrances or cash registers (DisneyLand has perfected snake-like queues). That’s because one mega line feels more like “first come, first serve” and less like a competition to pick the best queue.

Yet strategies that make lines more fun don’t necessarily make them more equitable, and there are things we can all do to ensure non-stop pandemic-induced queuing doesn’t make shopping more inaccessible.

People standing in lines can help each other out by letting people who have less time cut the queue, or by offering to pick up groceries for people who can’t get to the store, said Susan Wolf, a philosophy professor who specializes in ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But the onus to make queues more bearable should be on institutions, not individuals, Wolf said.

“I know some retail stores are saying, ‘Make appointments;’ grocery stores are keeping options open by allowing people to order online, then they have food ready for you,” Wolf said. It’s in the interests of businesses to consider a wide range of needs and adapt to those most affected by the current pandemic conditions, she said.

“More people will go to those businesses that way,” Wolf added.

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