Pandemic Recovery Status Report: Where are we now? What may be coming?


While the number of COVID-19 cases has spiked once again and is now declining in most states with the availability of vaccines easier to get for the entire adult population, many governors have decided that restrictions on the use of facilities and the public realm can be relaxed.  Officials, including Drs. Fauci and Walensky, however, continue to urge caution at least until there is better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 variants.

Whether or not we are now seeing a true reduction in the number of cases, or a prelude to a new spike, as more people are able to be vaccinated and as appropriate precautions continue to be used, over time economic considerations may indicate trends toward more relaxation of capacity including masking, while distancing and hand washing continue to be necessary precautions as we hope for true herd immunity if it can ever be achieved.

Restaurants, ready now to invite more customers for economic reasons, and sports venues at restricted but increasing capacity will join museums and stores working toward the “next normal.”

Soon more employers will also allow more employees to return to the workplace, joining some employers that have long since operated in offices or other work sites under strict rules of density and precautions.  Many workplaces are likely to wait until summer or after Labor Day as vaccinations are widespread to the adult public in order to allow less stringent operating conditions.

Past View of the Future

It may be informative to review where we have been to consider where we may be going.  It is time to revisit projections made last year before access to safe and effective vaccines was assured.

In July, we wrote about the “Big Yellow Taxi Effect” (which became a pull quote in the September/October Cornell Alumni Magazine) commenting on “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” as we reflected upon what we could no longer do because of the pandemic.  But we collectively learned to adapt by closing lanes and widening sidewalks to provide more space for pedestrians and outdoor diners.  We gained “Healthy Streets” in Boston while so many indoor restaurants and stores scaled back occupancy or like sports venues, were closed to visitors.  Last summer, we projected possible availability of an effective and safe vaccine by the beginning of 2001 – a pretty accurate projection – with widespread use by June 2021, which may not be too far off the mark.  We also said that we would return to the “next normal” in the public realm by then, which will probably be too optimistic, but July 4 seems to be the new target.

By September 2020, we wrote about the future of cities and the public realm along with low density occupancy of offices with precautions, and the prospect of more public transportation opportunities supported by federal relief funds.  Dominance of remote work was anticipated through at least the first two quarters of 2021.  A more active public realm and accompanying shopping, restaurant and small business activity growing, and low-density occupancy of sports venues further stimulating business activity was projected, and may yet come to pass if the vaccination bottleneck opens up and we remain successful with the precautions avoiding another upturn in infections and worse.

Last September, we also foresaw a continuing third quarter positive trend in use of the public realm and the economy, with autumn street fairs returning.  Now, many are aiming for an expected full opening of school classrooms with minimal restrictions in September.  Perhaps by the fourth quarter of 2021 we said, we would have advanced to the “next normal” closer to potential herd immunity, a recovering economy, reopened or new small business to meet a strong consumer demand supported by growing employment, and hopefully, new methods for treating “long haulers” to put the pandemic behind us for those fortunate not to have lost loved ones.  For many, the impact of COVID-19 may never end.

In December last year, members of our Land Use and Development Advisory Committee met and shared thoughts about the future of cities and the public realm.  We summarized an essay that highlighted the viewpoint of luminaries like Richard Florida on the future of cities.  Most of the writers saw “superstar cities” like New York, San Francisco, and Boston retaining their luster, but as remote work continues to fill a need, other cities, and even the expensive places to live like the superstars, may lose population to Tulsa, the prototype inexpensive, friendly place to live while connected remotely to the rest of the world.

Richard Florida foresees post-pandemic cities as more youthful, and guided by a “new urban reset” with an opportunity to follow a post-industrial model with downtowns, suburbs, and metropolitan areas humming to a new remix.  This image appears to be silent on how this remix will influence the public realm.  And it is too soon to tell if past trends and current trends (shaped by a very temporary situation) will become future trends.  But we need to be aware that we are not powerless to shape trends.

Sharing our Thoughts and Insights

In December, our committee members weighed in on the future of cities and the public realm, including attitudes toward the workplace.  The following is a selection of paraphrased comments:

One of our members reflected on the history of cities and density.  Around the 1920s, he said, there was an anti-urban trend establishing Garden Cities and seeking less density to reduce fire risk, disease spread, and other negative attributes of density.  That trend lasted for 70 years until the 1990s when cities were seen as safer and cities were thriving.  The question is has the latest trend reversed?  People need to feel comfortable, and challenges like the pandemic, cost of housing and transportation, and attitudes of the recent national administration need to be overcome by benefits such as support for innovation, climate change benefits, and other positives of density.  Housing is too expensive, but the benefits of urban life outweigh the costs.  There is concern that the trend toward density may be threatened by current conditions.

A fundamental observation was that people still want to go downtown, although many may have found that they can be productive working remotely when commuting is not necessary.

But Boston is a special place, one member said.  We don’t want to lose the brand that is Boston.  A survey of his employees by one of our members indicated that there was a preference for a spot in the office for everyone.  This member is not sure what it will look like to attract employees back.

There is a very practical reason why some employees will want to return to the urban workplace:  Cities have been around for thousands of years and will continue.  Millennials may be living with their parents for a while to enjoy free rent, but they do not want to be in the suburbs.  They will come back to the cities first.  We need to think about public and private outdoor space.  After one year, many people do not want to work at home for five days per week.  When offices reopen, people may see themselves at a career disadvantage if they are not in the office with everyone else.  In Zoom meetings held now, our member observed, with half the people around a table in the office and half at home, the people in the office are interacting, and those at home are not.

Finally, and basically, people want to come back for the human contact to see friends and foster human connections at restaurants, parks, and the office.  Human connections are arguably optimized in cities.

And human connections can occur in many places, not the least of which is the public realm.  Whether it’s public parks, sidewalks, plazas, workplaces, museums, restaurants, music venues, or sports venues, when it is believed to be safe to do so, many people will gather together to share the experience of urban life because humans are social creatures that want to be with other people.  There is no substitute for the occasional or frequent dose of urban life to satisfy that social need.  Sooner or later we will be back enjoying the city together.

In another round of comments from our members at the end of April, much uncertainty about conditions and exactly what to do about them remains, but the consensus was merging that September will be a major milestone months for employees returning to the workplace.

Recent Insights

The world and conditions continue to change rapidly, and staying ahead of the new insights and events remains a challenge.  In March alone President Biden promised availability of enough vaccine doses for every adult American.  That assurance may change the calculus of return to the workplace plans if the promise comes to pass. 

By March 3, three New York Times writers –Julie Creswell, Gillian Friedman, and Peter Eavis – noted that companies have yet to determine when and how to return employees to the workplace.  “The most important variable, many executives said, is how long it will take for most employees to be vaccinated,” they wrote.  They also considered the impact of remote work on assimilation of entry level employees into the culture of an organization through the process of collaboration – a recurring theme of observers.  They also looked at the real estate implications of remote work, office vacancies, and the sublet market.  And, the writers also looked at the bigger picture: “Moreover, a return to the office would help revive city centers that have been ghost towns for months.  Restaurants and bars could start hiring again and returning commuters could generate much-needed revenue for struggling transit systems…The course of the pandemic has largely dictated office attendance.”

On March 6, Boston Globe columnists Shirley Leung and Larry Edelman picked up on the “recovery is not going to be flicking a switch” theme but made the projection, writing that “By summer, most American adults should be vaccinated, and life is expected to return to something approaching normal as people eat in restaurants, hop on a plane, or catch a game at Fenway park.  Getting out of the house for work and recreation will swell the economy, juiced by another big federal stimulus program and trillions of dollars in savings that consumers are eager to spend.”  While rehiring employees in hard hit industries will be gradual, we currently see labor shortages in many places that depend on seasonal labor like Cape Cod.  How safe consumers feel being out and about will clearly influence their use of the commercial establishments, hospitality and entertainment venues, and the sidewalks and the open spaces of the public realm that are part of the shared experience.

The CDC issued guidelines for fully vaccinated people (two weeks after their final shot) on March 8 that state that they can meet indoors without masks and distancing required to date, although masking in public and precautions with unvaccinated people are still advisable.  And once again in April, the guidelines changed.

We have seen the return of many travelers to the air, at least for domestic flights.  There is more discussion about “vaccination passports” to make travel easier.  Quarantines have been reduced or lifted for some destinations, but travel to Europe is still tightly controlled as vaccine issues have not yet turned the tide of COVID.

Interviewed by Commonwealth Magazine, economics Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard, author of Triumph of the City, not surprisingly sees the future of the city as bright.  He writes, “If our cities do become safe from contagion, then city life will come back, even though each individual city will be vulnerable.  Cities and offices will return because humanity is a social species that craves the company of others….Both the office and the city will survive COVID-19, but no individual city is guaranteed success.”  As remote work opportunities reduce business costs there will be pressure on expensive cities to devise policies to help the poor while supporting economic dynamism, he says.  As others have suggested, some cities will be better at the process of preserving their economies than others.

Finally, on March 17, after being informed by the CDC that more doses of vaccine would be made available for Massachusetts, Governor Baker announced a new timeline for eligibility to receive vaccine doses allowing all residents over the age of 16 to qualify on April 19, 2021, with the consistent reservation at that time that it will take longer for all those eligible to book appointments. 

In May, the Governor lifted the mask mandate across the state with a handful of communities electing to retain the outdoor mask requirement for a while.  Vaccinations are now available on a walk-in basis, and the challenge has shifted from scheduling appointments to overcoming vaccine hesitancy.  August 1 became the new target fo reopening many activities in Massachusetts.

In any case, this accelerated pace is consistent with President Biden’s target of back yard July 4 celebrations with small groups of vaccinated individuals.  Can celebrations in workplaces be far behind?

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