In other words, the virus is calling the shots, which is the singular reason for the protracted probable depth and length of the coming post-virus urban hangover even as increasing numbers of states elect to reopen. And the longer that businesses are in limbo and shoppers in large numbers remain leery of crowds, the worse the economic fallout will be. “Without an effective testing and tracing infrastructure in place, ‘re-opening’ is just a synonym for ‘second wave of the pandemic,’” Erik Brynjolffson, a professor at MIT, tweeted few months ago.
One conspicuous fallout is a potentially final blow to Main Street — the future likelihood that, when you walk or drive down your favorite roads, many of the shops and restaurants you love won’t reopen. In an April 22 note to clients, Barclays said Covid-19 had accelerated what it calls the “retail death curve,” the shift of business to e-commerce. Over the coming five years, 30% to 40% of still-existing physical shops will close, the bank said. Neighborhood shops hoping to survive may have to feature cashierless technology resembling Amazon Go, vending machine sales, and kiosks offering grab-and-go clothing combinations such as T-shirts, jeans, and jackets.
It will be the same with restaurant takeout and delivery. Restaurants will be far from finished as an urban thing. Some restaurants will vanish, but others will arise in their place. Dining out, however, may no longer be the main alternative to cooking at home. The winners will be Amazon and Uber, Walmart, DoorDash, and Target, whose boom in delivery will grow at almost everyone else’s expense. Other emerging businesses, perhaps to support the unicorns, will be reliable, close-at-hand farms growing enough food so the nearby city needn’t worry about future pandemic disruptions, said Alice Charles, a cities analyst for the World Economic Forum.
Much of our current aversion to crowds will dissipate with time. Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, said that after the 1918–1919 flu pandemic, it took five or six years until people got comfortable taking trains again but that ultimately they did. “There was short-term adaptation and then no long-term change,” Florida said. It’s hard to know what residue of the Covid-19 pandemic will remain with us long-term — an obsession with disinfectant? Different dating practices? “Hindsight suggests that some behavioral and societal changes spurred by a pandemic can be lasting,” Barclays said, “and a vaccine may not be available for at least another year, at which point behaviors could be more ingrained.”
The Taiwanese capital of Taipei is an example of how a city can reopen before a treatment or vaccine are created. In the city, temperatures seem to be taken at every building entrance — at shops, malls, apartments, schools, workplaces, and offices. IDs are checked on the way in and out of apartment buildings. Movements are tracked by cellphones. If you have just arrived in the country, you are subject to a 14-day quarantine. Today, the island’s case count for the entire pandemic is 429 with six deaths.
That is not how the story ends in American cities. For us, life is likely to return to normal only when herd immunity is reached, Covid-19 burns itself out, or a treatment or a vaccine takes its course.
Bythe measure of the 2008–2009 crash, the Covid-19 recession should propel Generation Z to flock to the urban core and reignite the fortunes of New York and Chicago. But powerful counterforces suggest that history may not repeat nor even rhyme. One of them is the probable duration of social distancing, the depth of the economic downturn, and the hit to city comforts. The greater anti-urban force, though, may be geopolitics.
Even before the virus, President Donald Trump’s trade war with Beijing had initiated a decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies. Last year, U.S. manufacturing imports from China dropped 17%, “evidence that U.S. companies were starting to significantly” shift away from a reliance on Chinese goods suppliers, according to a recent report by Kearney, a consulting firm. Now, Covid-19 looks likely to accelerate the decoupling. The driver is how the virus laid bare the perilous fragility of globally stretched supply lines. U.S. companies will want far more diverse sources of parts and places to manufacture. “Companies will bring their strategic stockpiles closer to the U.S., maybe to Mexico,” said Sridhar Tayur, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
But the shift may directly affect U.S. cities, too, because some companies will bring factories back home. Michele Acuto, director of the Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne, said that the U.S. lacks sufficient numbers of engineers to restore manufacturing at scale. But to the degree manufacturing does return, companies will shun expensive urban centers and intensify the buildup of city outskirts, where there is cheap, plentiful land and access to labor and transportation. “Rebounding manufacturing jobs would probably favor suburbs and red-leaning counties,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed. Lily Fang, a professor at France’s Insead, said medical technology — China is often the singular provider of critically needed pharmaceuticals and medical gear — is a primary example of an industry that would return to the U.S. and specifically to smaller cities. “Paris will still be Paris,” Fang said, using her own capital as a proxy for our great cities. “But it reduces the distance between Paris and the rest of the country.”
Always, pandemics seem to lead to a scapegoat — often perceived outsiders. During the Roaring ’20s, the U.S. went into an immigrant scare. Among those ringing the alarm was Calvin Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, who argued that the U.S. had become a “dumping ground” for “the vicious, the weak of body, the shiftless or the improvident.” The United States needed “the right kind of immigration,” he said. In 1921 and 1924, Congress passed a new quota system that clamped down on the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans and banned Asians outright. The closure of borders hit the U.S. with almost immediate effect and lasted for four decades: a 68% plunge in U.S. patents in the fields where the blocked immigrants worked, including electrochemistry, fluid dynamics, and mathematical analysis, according to a recent paper co-authored by Petra Moser, a professor at New York University. The innovation drought continued through 1965 when the Johnson administration’s Immigration Act reopened the country.
On April 22, Trump ordered narrow new restrictions on immigration that largely affected the families of green-card holders, and Moser says the hit to innovation is likely to repeat. “Our research suggests that blocking immigration today will damage U.S. science and innovation and that any damage may persist for a very long time,” Moser said. “Even when such policies have targeted low-skilled immigration, they are likely to discourage scientists and other high-skilled immigrants from the same countries to come to the United States.”
Even in a Hobbesian age of one nation, one state, and one city against the other, the pandemic is making a lot of people at least silently concede that we are all in this together.
Moser also says that the new law seems likely to accelerate the shrinkage of major cities across the country. Some 85% of U.S. immigrants live in the top 100 metro areas, according to a report last year by the New American Economy, a pro-immigration think tank. From 2014 to 2017, the population would have declined without immigration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Memphis, Tennessee; San Jose, California; Dayton, Ohio; Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Louis, Missouri. The new loss of immigrants will morph into a worker shortage in certain professions: Foreign-born U.S. residents are 34% of the health care workers in El Paso, Texas; 18% in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and 16% in Tuscon, Arizona, for instance.
Some of the country’s most important companies have launched during adverse times, going back to the depressions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (GE, GM, IBM) and right up to the last financial crash (Square, WhatsApp, Slack). Cities seem likely to continue to be founts of creativity. But they will be hobbled by Trump’s immigration crackdown.
Brynjolffson, the MIT professor and co-author of the classic on automation, The Second Machine Age, said the Trump administration’s immigration policy had already had a “clear negative effect” on innovation in his own lab. “It’s not just the written rules but also the people enforcing them who have now become much more nitpicky: delaying responses, being uncooperative, and denying visits for minor mistakes or bureaucratic obstacles,” Brynjolffson said.
“The key thing to understand is that [U.S.-born] American researchers and innovators are not hurt when the U.S. is a talent magnet, and neither is the general public,” he said. “On the contrary, immigration is a big part of what has made Silicon Valley, the Boston area, and many other parts of the U.S. so innovative, increasing everyone’s living standards. Forcing innovators to do their work in other countries hurts the U.S. in the long run.”
Roger Keil, a professor at York University, points out that urban life has already changed from what it was a few months ago. “Being urban is about freedom and mingling,” he said. “But now we are prisoners in our homes.”
Yet it is not all bad in the city. Even in a Hobbesian age of one nation, one state, and one city against the other, the pandemic is somewhat breaking through the usual hardcore divide and making a lot of people at least silently concede that we are all in this together. The virus, says Rebecca Katz, a professor at Georgetown University, is showing cities that they need each other. While Trump parcels out blame, local political leaders are forming alliances. Largely they are governors — on the West Coast, in the East, and in the Midwest. But at their core are the big cities that dominate them. “Governors and cities are taking this approach because of a lack of national leadership,” Katz says.
This is a global trend. For instance, in order to protect their own populations, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam have stopped new rice exports. As a response, seven food-importing and -exporting countries have formed a pandemic trading union. Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Myanmar, Brunei, and Singapore have agreed to keep their own mutual supply lines open regardless of conditions.
All this détente is a gigantic black eye for another epidemic: populism. Countries where garrulous demagoguery has taken root over the last four or so years — the U.S., the U.K., and Brazil, for instance — have shown themselves to be less-adept crisis managers than technocratic places like Singapore, Denmark, Austria, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan. Pushan Dutt, a Singapore-based professor for Insead, the French graduate business school, notes that all the latter countries are electoral democracies, putting the kibosh on the idea that you can only effectively impose pandemic strictures if you are a king. These countries learned the lessons of the last pandemics, had plans in place, and executed them. The U.S. government also had a plan in place but distrusted “the deep state.” The resulting chaos has left what successes there have been to old-fashioned city mayors and state governors.
“The rise of populism in the West is proving very expensive in this crisis,” Dutt says. “The correct dichotomy isn’t between democratic and autocratic countries. It’s between competence and incompetence.”
That thought, while reassuring politically, still doesn’t leave much room for comfort if you live in a city where it does matter if the trains run on time — and whether you feel safe riding on them.