As encouraging progress in developing promising therapies to treat COVID-19 patients is made and as researchers work frantically to develop vaccines, the rest of us increasingly wonder what the new normal will look like as restrictions are eased. Since most experts agree that the coronavirus may return or that new viruses may cause new epidemics, how will we prepare for them? And how abnormal will the new normal be?
Here’s one clue. Many people are fleeing, or planning to flee, or wish they could flee major cities, particularly those in the densely populated northwest corridor of the United States between Boston and Washington, D.C. New York, for example, once the most populous state, but now only fourth largest, had been experiencing population decline for some years prior to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, even before the classic movie comedy “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” was released in 1948, affluent New Yorkers were dreaming of retreating to a peaceful country home in rural Connecticut or New Jersey or upstate New York or at least a vacation home in the Poconos; anything to get away from a cramped apartment during a New York summer. Now, there’s a new reason.
New York City, America’s most populous, is also the most densely populated. Its approximately 8.4 million inhabitants are tightly packed into about 300 square miles which works out to about 26,400 folks per square mile. That’s pretty cozy compared to almost all of the rest of the country. Many live in apartment or condo towers, accessed by crowded elevators. They commute nearly everywhere, packed into subways and buses and share the sidewalks with the homeless. The region is served by three major international airports bringing in, during normal times, tens of thousands of visitors daily from all over the world, along with any diseases they may bring with them. Popular restaurants, theaters and stadiums, in normal times, are also crowded as are the streets and shopping venues. The crowds, the bustle, the tourist attractions and the congestion characterize the Big Apple and make it exciting. They also make social distancing almost impossible unless you stay home which is no way to live for long, especially in a tiny apartment. So what will the new normal look like there?
The U.S., which accounts for roughly a third of the known cases of COVID-19 and about a fourth of the deaths, is a large country with relatively low population density, especially if you exclude the New York City metropolitan area which includes the five boroughs, northern New Jersey and southwest Connecticut. About a third of the country’s known COVID-19 cases thus far have occurred in New York State, most of them in Greater New York City which accounted for about one-fourth of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths to date, a death rate far out of proportion to its less than 3% share of the nation’s population. It follows, of course, that the death rate for the rest of the country is far less. It should go without saying that this isn’t the fault of the good people of New York but it does help explain why more and more of them want to flee to Florida or Vermont or somewhere as soon as they’re able. There are, to be sure, other urban hot spots like New Orleans and Detroit but none as severely impacted by this pandemic as New York City.
These realities raise questions about the future development of our urban areas, some of which, like San Diego, are just about out of buildable land within reasonable commuting distance of jobs and the trend is toward building apartment and condo towers, which increases density, and expanding use of public transportation for increasingly longer commutes. Neither is conducive to social distancing if needed in the future or if we never stop needing it.
America, which boasts the world’s third largest population, has a population density only one third that of China’s. For most of our history, we have welcomed immigrants, who have contributed so much to the country. Immigrants, however, tend to migrate to the cities where they blend in easier and where jobs, services and, in many cases relatives, tend to be, not so much to the more sparsely populated areas that could use more population density and the development it usually brings. Will the new normal bring changes to our immigration policies? How about our policies regarding the homeless (if they can be called policies)?
All of this is to say that the new normal may reflect changes in how we plan for housing and public transportation and cause us to look for ways to reduce population density. There’s a lot of land in this country. We shouldn’t have to live on top of each other or be packed like sardines into public transportation, nor can everyone live on the coasts. Nobody, of course, knows what the new normal will look like but we do know that it will be new and it’s not too soon to be thinking about it.
Dr. Kelly, a freelance writer living in Coronado, is a retired Navy Captain. He commanded three San Diego-based ships, a naval laboratory and taught ship handling, seamanship and navigation at Naval Base San Diego. He received his doctorate at the USD and taught MBA students for the Graduate School of Business. He was a senior vice president and director of training and development at Great American Bank.