In the Middle Ages, European city dwellers had one way of avoiding their centurieslong waves of plagues: stay inside and hope for them to go away. Today, countries that have begun to open up amid Covid-19 — Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, and South Korea among them — have started with a similar lockdown but have meanwhile moved to take control of the virus.
The shared core of all their approaches has been the creation of vast SWAT teams, hundreds of specially trained workers who, clad in protective gear, swoop in to test for Covid-19, trace anyone with whom a discovered carrier has been in contact, and enforce a quarantine on the whole lot.
It is estimated that the U.S. needs 100,000 to 300,000 tracers, up from about 2,200 employed currently between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials. But no national mobilization is currently planned nor is there any sign that one will be later.
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 last week.
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.