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What COVID-19 changes will stay?

Every national/global challenge has permanently changed the way people interact with each other and places or institutions. Even within my lifetime there has been major changes to school access (in response to Columbine and the many school shootings since), flying (in response to September 11th), and in access to federal buildings and other government centers (in response to Oklahoma City). Two of my projects at work involve planning for 2050. We’re trying to balance being in the moment with figuring out how the current situation may permanently affect places and transportation. What change will stick after COVID-19?

Transportation

There are people calling this the end of transit. There are some people saying it is the end of cars dominating the streets and that the few miles of roads “reclaimed” from cars in cities across the country will be permanent changes and expand as cycling will become the preferred mode of transportation. People (and the airlines and air travel infrastructure) are trying to figure out how to make people comfortable with air travel on commercial planes again. Others wonder if the cruise industry and practice of going on cruises will survive. There are a lot of voices shouting very loudly to get their perspectives heard, especially when it comes to budgets and funding opportunities. We don’t yet know what people are going to do or what governments or industries are going to do, when this is over, let alone what will come back (and when) and what will permanently change.

Public meetings and hearings

The in-person meeting as the only means of conducting a public meeting or hearing was the gold standard for access, but should it have been? There are many people who can’t get to the seat of government conveniently at the time meetings are held whether they are during the business day or in the evening. Further, many of those most impacted by local decisions are least able to get to in-person meetings because of work schedules, child care, the cost of parking, the transit schedule, or inability to leave their home. Is it possible that more people can be better informed by continuing with online attendance and participation options now that the horse has left the barn?

Workplaces

How will office space change? Will more businesses/organizations have more people working remotely full time? Will open concept end and office footprints need to be larger for employers where staff need to be on site? Will those things balance each other out? How fast will the office/commercial lease space change? What will it do to rents and property tax revenues? How will remote work change benefits like flexible time, internet/phone reimbursements, dress codes, and commuting (parking passes or bus passes)? Will parking lots/garages become obsolete because less parking is needed if employees aren’t all reporting to a common office space? There are way more questions than answers right now, and only time will tell if businesses are willing to allow for workers to continue working from home.

Hospitality/Entertainment Industries

Pro-COVID19, structural changes in the economy had shifted many economies away from manufacturing. As a result, more communities embraced the hospitality/entertainment industry as a major source of employment and revenue. Some places, like Las Vegas and mountain/ocean tourism destinations, have always relied on the hospitality and entertainment industries. But it remains to be seen if people will return to large conventions, hotel stays, dining in large groups or crowded dining rooms, seeing shows or attending sporting events. Even things like parades and festivals may not ever be safe for minimizing the spread of the coronavirus, or they may not be things many people are comfortable returning to right away. People may also elected to permanently participate in online or virtual events rather than in-person. Regardless of how this plays out, there are major implications for the types of infrastructure cities fund/develop/maintain which will inform our city development patterns.

Agriculture/Food Distribution

There are “shortages” and higher prices for some items at the grocery stores while farmers are still dumping extra milk, slaughtering and burying animals, burying eggs, and plowing under crops. The problem is the segmentation of the processing/packaging/distribution systems between grocery supply and the restaurant supply. The restaurants need less supply now and the groceries need more, but the processing/packaging/distribution network can’t affordably accommodate the shift. Will the shift happen over time or will restaurants return to volume, so the old system will still work (as much as it ever did)?

Equity

The system was broken for many groups of people before COVID-19, and the pandemic has widened the gap. It is primarily white, educated, professional, well-compensated people who are able to work from home, stay at home, and absorb the challenges of educating children at home (even though this is a major struggle even for the most well-equipped). Will we pivot to make policy and funding choices that change the underlying structures that perpetuate inequity?

Childcare/education

Parents are basically not able to educate their kids at home and work. Even stay-at-home parents are struggling with the demands of trying to do education at home. This isn’t the same as homeschooling in normal situations. Even in the summer it won’t return to “normal” because the camps and programs that families with working adults use to fill the gap are not going to be back for now. Will they come back in the long-term?

These are just a few of the short and long term questions that are raised by the pandemic. The truth is we won’t know for a while what ends of being the “new normal” because we can’t always see that from the middle of the storm.

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