As states across the country and in the region start reopening businesses, people are beginning to wonder what getting back to normal might look like in the midst of a pandemic. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with STAT senior science writer Sharon Begley about three possible futures some researchers are predicting. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: You say no matter what, October of 2020 will look nothing like October of 2019.

Sharon Begley: The world has changed, Joe. There's just no going back. Even with the reopenings that we're talking about, remember that the social distancing restrictions are still in place. Even the businesses, the non-essential businesses that are reopening, are being told no more than half the usual capacity. If restaurants and bars reopen, we can expect the servers to have facemasks. The guests will very possibly have their temperatures taken before we're allowed to be seated. So, again, 2020 is going to be a very strange year.

Mathieu: Yeah, well, we've got that underway already. So you looked at research from the University of Minnesota and you described three possible scenarios. I'm fascinated by this, and we all are, because we're all wondering what this is going to lead to. Three scenarios, including the wave we are in, being followed by a series of mini waves every few months. Is that the most likely future?

Begley: Well, it's the most optimistic one, I'm sorry to say, because the most optimistic in this case means that we are not going to be rid of the coronavirus until there is an effective and widely available vaccine. So the scenario that you're discussing, Joe, shows that after the current outbreak, which is 4.2 million cases globaly and closing in on 300,000 deaths, it will abate in the warm months, at least partially but not completely. And then scientists are saying, let's hope that there's a vaccine by early 2022. So between now and then, there will continue to be outbreaks, but again, most optimistically much smaller, like half the size of the one that we have now. That reflects the continuation of at least some social distancing rules, but also even if they are not mandated, people have [to] just realize that the world is different and there will be voluntary social distancing even if it's not required.

Mathieu: President Trump likes to say if we get little outbreaks around the country, we'll "whack" them, he says, like it's a game of whack-a-mole. But in that case, as you describe possibly a series of mini waves, would those be best handled by contact tracing programs like we have here in Massachusetts?

Begley: Well, again, that would be the best case. And yes, Trump is not wrong that the mini waves that the scientists are projecting are not global. Instead, you might have a bunch of cases because of the bad luck of a super spreader in one city or people got together in larger gatherings than really was safe in another city, et cetera. And again, best case that those cases are identified quickly and that states and municipalities have their contact tracing programs in place and they're effective so that the mini outbreak can be damped down before it goes into anything like we're seeing now.

Mathieu: A second possible scenario has our current wave followed by an even bigger one. Is that the worst case?

Begley: Well, it's certainly not a good one. And this one is a lesson from history. During the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919, after the initial wave in March of 1918, that was followed after it abated by about six months later, the epidemic exploded. It was more than twice as large — 50 million people died. So clearly that would be something we do not want to revisit. And the reason the scientists put that into at least a possible scenario is, again, it happened before. There is nothing we know about this coronavirus to tell us that it will not happen. I have to say that one they believe to be less likely, thank goodness, because we think that the current situation is a catastrophe and a tragedy. This would be orders of magnitude worse than that.

Mathieu: Well, when you see cities and states opening with people not wearing masks and images I saw on social media over the weekend of people crowding on airplanes, it does make you wonder. But a third, you say, is COVID as the new normal. Basically, it never goes away.

Begley: That's right, Joe. And in this one, unlike the first scenario where the current outbreak is followed by mini waves, in this one subsequent waves every few months are about as big as what we are currently experiencing. That one, again, it just sort of unimaginable. We all hope that the reopenings are not happening too soon because the great fear, of course, is that everything that has been put into the current efforts to maintain or to damp down the outbreak will have been for nothing -- that all of the lost jobs and lost businesses -- that we never really gained anything. So in this one, again, we have outbreaks as far as the eye can see until there's a vaccine.

So everybody asks which one will it be, and when I asked the scientists, they said the virus will have a lot to say about that because whether it abates in warm, humid weather is totally a question of biology. But really, human beings, social policies [and] governmental policies will also have a big effect on which scenario comes to pass.