A fear of people in stadiums, on trains
It's more than concern about contagion: Our collective mindset is shifting on everything from stadium gatherings to our dream trips.
Take me out with the crowd? Not now. “I don't see any timeline where athletic events have fans packing the stands,” says Abraham Madkour, publisher and executive editor of Sports Business Journal, who believes baseball, hockey and the NBA may play to empty arenas at least into 2021. “The exception might be football, which needs fans to work,” he says. But even there, you'll likely see 25 to 30 percent capacity, higher ticket prices, segmented arrival times and cordoned-off sections to give cautious attendees the luxury of distance.
"Nobody's excited about being around 75,000 people right now,” Madkour says.
Convincing home team hordes to use mass transit will be tricky, too. Public transportation ridership demand has dropped 75 percent nationally during the crisis, according to statistics compiled by the Transit app. New York City subway traffic is down a staggering 93 percent. “It took six years for transit ridership to return to normal after 9/11, and that didn't involve a bunch of contagious people in an enclosed bus or train,” says Bert Sperling, founder of BestPlaces.net, an online resource about city livability. “Society is about to do a major rethink on commuting, now that telecommuting is a real option and the status around clustering in a city center has gone away.”
Just as Paris was remade after thousands died in the 1832 cholera epidemic, “American cities will reassess and reevaluate the width of our sidewalks, better access to parks and nature, and why cars get so much space when it's people who need to roam,” says Nicola Twilley, coauthor of a forthcoming book on the history of quarantines. Early evidence: New York City is planning to close up to 100 miles of streets for pedestrian use. “It will be hard to give all that opened space back,” Twilley says.
It turns out the safest place in a pandemic is right at home — and now that we've reexperienced its joys, we may choose to stick around more.
Sourdough loaves are rising, seedlings are sprouting and that sweet hempy smell around sunset might just be your retired weed-loving neighbor. “With the grim news of the day, people are crying out for a respite, or at least a jumble or a rebus,” says Ben Bass, a lawyer based in Chicago and three-time Jeopardy! winner. His twice-weekly Cryptogram is part of an April shutdown-induced crossword page expansion in the New York Times. “Games keep you sane."
The Times also reported a resurgence of so-called victory gardens as grocery shelves grew bare. Puzzle sales at game-maker Ravensburger jumped 370 percent as the outbreak initially shut things down. In a study, 87 percent of Americans reported enjoying “catching up on TV and movies,” according to USC's Center for the Digital Future. Online sales at Vermont-based King Arthur Flour soared in March; the company had to put a two-bag limit on orders from home bakers. Guitar Center saw online sales double as Eric Clapton wannabes sheltered in place.
Boston home goods company Wayfair reports roughly 90 percent revenue growth since April 1, as homeowners invest in improvements. Spirits are being refreshed, too: Online alcohol sales spiked 243 percent nationwide during one week in March, according to Nielsen, and home cannabis delivery is booming. “On average, with COVID, we see 50 percent more people over age 50 ordering, and they're buying 15 percent more per order,” says Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for online cannabis marketplace Eaze.
Travel and housing trends reverse
In the good old days — say, February — staying in a stranger's guest unit was the smartest way to avoid high-priced hotels. Now Airbnb and other rental shares “are at a huge disadvantage,” says The Points Guy founder Brian Kelly. Airbnb, which recently laid off a quarter of its workforce, is implementing rigorous cleaning guidelines, including a new category of listings that block out 72 hours between guest visits for sanitizing. “When we asked guests in March whether they'd choose to stay in a home where they had more control of their surroundings or a densely populated hotel, 74 percent chose a home,” says a spokesperson for Airbnb. Still, Kelly says, “Do you really want to sleep in a room cleaned by someone who's doing this as a hobby?"
Retirees who were considering ditching their home or downsizing are reevaluating, too. Before the lockdown, swapping out the family house for an apartment in town made perfect sense for empty nesters. Now? Maybe not. “Aging in place is going to mean aging with more space,” predicts Nora Super, senior director of the Milken Institute's Center for the Future of Aging, who is revisiting the institute's “Age-Forward Cities for 2030,” a report about how cities can work best for tomorrow's older population.
Nearly a third of Americans are considering moving to less populated areas in the wake of the pandemic, according to a new Harris Poll. “Those of us who are aging experts thought the best place to retire would be somewhere dense, where you have access to museums, transportation, restaurants and places to walk, even with limited mobility,” Super says. But that changed, she says, as New York and other cities became COVID-19 epicenters.
The unknown unknowns
There's really no predicting what's coming to Americans next. Pick a concern and it's punctuated by question marks.
The economy and Medicare? “It's hard to guess the depth of the downturn, but it will be the worst since the Depression,” says Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of People, Power, and Profits. “Unless we provide significant support to states and localities, which are front lines on Medicare and Medicaid, the availability of social services is going to be very stretched."
Voting? “We'll learn more through primary season,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP's chief advocacy and engagement officer. “We do know the 116 million American voters over age 50 have views across the ideological spectrum, and they intend to vote.”
A coronavirus cure? That's the most critical question, and it's still too early to say. The 1967 mumps vaccine took a record-short four years to produce. There are more than 250 therapies and 100 vaccines related to COVID-19 being explored, but we'll need to build factories to produce hundreds of millions of doses. “If we're lucky and fast-track this, we may have a vaccine within a year or two, but it could be three or five years or longer,” says Johns Hopkins’ Toner. “My hope is we can learn from this painful lesson. We're not going back to how things were, but with new precautions and new habits, we'll be better prepared for the next superbug du jour."