The coronavirus pandemic, already transforming the world's most famous monarchy, has people wondering: Will we ever see Queen Elizabeth II – the oldest and longest-serving British sovereign ever – out and about in public again?
The question may seem academic to many Americansbut for the United Kingdom it is all too relevant. Some commentators are worried about whether the "crown" virus hobbles the Crown in a country where the monarchy is crucial to the functioning of government and culture, and the sovereign is the living link between its people and their past.
Slowly, some of Britain's top royals are starting to emerge from pandemic lockdown (and their Zoom screens) to resume in-person engagements – with important alterations: Fewer indoor events, no shaking hands, no walkabouts in crowds, and six feet of social distancing at all times. And so far, no masks, at least not in photos.
Last week, Prince Charles the Prince of Wales, 71, (who's already recovered from the virus) and his wife, Duchess Camilla of Cornwall, 72, visited a hospital in Gloucestershire and welcomed visiting French President Emmanuel Macron in London. Everyone greeted each other with the palms-together-bowed-head namaste gesture that long ago became Charles' signature.
Also last week, Charles' elder son, Prince William of Cambridge, 38,went to King's Lynn in eastern England to visit an ambulance service , and dropped in at a bakery in the high street to talk about the pandemic effect on small businesses and to collect a cake for his birthday on Sunday.
And on Friday, Will's wife, Duchess Kate of Cambridge, 38, who's been seen only on video for the last few months, went to a garden center in Norfolk in her first in-person engagement since the lockdown.
So far, the queen, who just turned 94, has not emerged from Windsor Castle where she has been self-isolating since mid-March. She couldn't even attend her favorite racing meet, Royal Ascot, this week – for the first time in her 68-year reign.
Will she ever return to the job she has carried out faithfully for all these decades?
Andrew Morton thinks not. The British journalist, best known for revealing the rancorous collapse of the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, claimed recently that the pandemic has done more damage to the monarchy than the 17th-century English Civil War (which resulted in the execution of one of the queen's predecessors).
“The brutal truth is that her reign is effectively over. COVID-19 has done more damage to the monarchy than Oliver Cromwell," Morton told The Daily Telegraph. "Corona has practically put Charles on the throne...It’s terribly sad but I can’t see how the queen can resume her job."
Victoria Arbiter, CNN's royal commentator and the daughter of a former press secretary to the queen, is skeptical. "In my view, he's vastly overstating the situation," Arbiter says. "The queen is very much still running the business of the monarchy."
"(Morton) has a crystal ball not available to anybody else," sniffs Sally Bedell Smith, the American acclaimed biographer of multiple royals, including the queen.
"It's really premature to say she's going to withdraw like (her great-great grandmother) Queen Victoria from all public appearances....Unless she gets ill in one way or another, when it's appropriate she will resume her duties when she can. She's still in good health."
Both note the queen is still working behind closed doors: She's consulting by phone weekly with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other members of her government. She's working on state papers in her daily red boxes, reading and signing documents. She's begun "meeting" people via Zoom calls on her tablet, as she and daughter Princess Anne did on June 11 when they spoke to a group of carers to mark #CarersWeek2020.
For the first time, the palace has released video and audio of some royal calls. The queen also has done two televised speeches in recent months, which is rare for her.
New pictures of her – riding one of her horses and a birthday portrait of her and her husband on his 99th birthday last week – have been released. A scaled down version of her annual birthday parade, Trooping the Colour, took place last week in the quadrangle of the castle, where she watched – socially distanced – and seemed delighted.
She even agreed to an interview – the queen never does interviews – with Horse and Hound magazine to talk about her favorite horses over her decades of horse breeding and racing.
"Her aides have been incredibly creative in making sure she continues to be seen and in keeping her 'present,' " says Arbiter. "She remains a beacon of stability and continuity, and when the world is imploding, it's comforting for people to see the ways things are being done as before or in a slightly altered version."
"If her children and grandchildren do their jobs, I don’t see COVID as a game changer (for the monarchy) unless something happens with this disease that we can't anticipate and it forces them and everyone else back into lockdown," Smith said.
Smith acknowledges the queen has always said she must be seen to be believed, but it's not required to be daily.
"People tend to forget there are big chunks of the year when she typically disappears to one of her royal residences – Sandringham, Balmoral, Easter court at Windsor – for months or longer," Smith says. "Her not being front and center (for now) isn’t all that remarkable."
The queen and her 99-year-old husband, Prince Philip, are expected to remain at Windsor Castle at least until the end of July. It's not clear yet whether they will then depart for Scotland for their annual two-month summer holiday at the Balmoral royal estate, or if they do, under what conditions. .
Yes, uncertainty is baked in to the current situation. Will there be a vaccine and an effective treatment? Until that's clear, prudence is necessary when dealing with nonagenarians, however well-cared for.
"The queen loves to work, loves her job, loves meeting people, and I'm sure she's eager to get back to it," Arbiter says, predicting her first public events will be low-key audiences with ambassadors or military figures. "It will be a slow build, done on advice of health experts and ministers."
Royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams says the pandemic crisis has allowed the monarchy to "come into its own again" as a symbol of national unity, and that's largely down to the queen.
"The word is that she is looking forward, obviously when circumstances permit, to return to business as usual," Fitzwilliams says. "It may take a long time before that can be achieved and it may not all be possible as planned, but there is, in my view, no intention to abdicate or step aside."