Adapting “What Do People Do All Day?” for COVID-19

Spotted on Facebook the other day: an alternative version of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All D Richard Scaarry’s What Do People Do All Day?

It is relatively easy to focus on the big-picture issues with COVID-19 without thinking too much about how so many daily routines have changed. Kids tend to like routine and children’s books help explain what kids and everyone else do.

Additionally, Richard Scarry’s original connected daily activities to a number of larger schemes including how people make money, various modes of travel, the construction of roads and houses, and the production of food, water, energy, and wood.

Maybe this is part of why I am a sociologist: these quotidian activities all add to something as well as reflect larger social forces at work. If culture is “patterns of meaning-making” as sociologists of culture argue, then even the mundane things are worth something. When these daily patterns change, they might signal something momentous, whether it is through personal maturation or changed life circumstances or global pandemics. Similarly, a big question coming out of COVID-19 is how much the disruptions from several months of shelter-in-place stick with people. For example, will people want to commute as much? Return to an office for work? Consume as much? And children who have new routines may carry these changes through many years and subsequent experiences.

Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?

The start to social distancing summer

As the weather warms up, people want to get back to summer activities: going to the beach, taking vacations, outdoor gatherings with family and friends, barbequing, outdoor festivals and performances, and more. How much of this is possible? A few thoughts connected to recent posts:

  1. If consumption is indeed down, this will be disastrous for many communities. Already, local finances are in trouble but without infusions of cash from tourists, many places will struggle.
  2. Americans like to drive; is the summer road trip possible in many parts of the United States?
  3. Certain outdoor activities will be okay in many places. But, this is reliant on either having large spaces where people can spread out or in private spaces with fewer people. Large beaches will be okay, smaller settings (thinking of some of Chicago’s smaller beaches) may be more problematic. Having a cookout in a backyard is fine while having a bunch of people in a confined space for a concert will cause more issues. Walking and biking are made easier with warmer weather.
  1. Does warmer weather increase sociability? This is when physical distancing might be a more appropriate term than social distancing as people seek to be outside more and inevitably interact with more people.
  2. With disparities in COVID-19 cases across locations and groups, will some groups have a more typical summer while others will face heavier restrictions?
  3. A summer without sports is hard to imagine. How will people get around this or seek alternatives?

With Memorial Day almost here, we will see what happens.

What if Americans stop buying things they do not need?

COVID-19 has helped slow retail sales and one writer suggests this could be a tipping point toward a society where fewer Americans feel the compulsion to consume:

We’re trained to buy often, buy cheap, and buy a lot. And I’m not just talking about food, which everyone has to acquire in some capacity, or clothes. I mean all the other small purchases of daily life: a new face lotion, a houseplant holder, a wine glass name trinket, an office supply organizer, a vegetable spiralizer, a cute set of hand towels, a pair of nicer sunglasses, a pair of sports sunglasses, a pair of throwaway sunglasses. The stuff, in other words, that you don’t even know that you want until it somehow finds its way to your cart at Target or T.J. Maxx.

In post–World War II America, the vast majority of things we buy are often not what we actually need. But they’re indisputably things we want: manifestations of personal and collective abundance. We buy because we’re bored, or because planned obsolescence forces us to replace items we can’t fix. We buy to accumulate objects meant to communicate our class and what sort of person we are. We buy because we want to feel something or change something, and purchasing something is the quickest way to do so. When that doesn’t work, we buy “an experience,” whether it’s a night at Color Me Mine or a weekend bachelorette trip to Nashville. We buy because, from the Great Depression onward, how we consume has become deeply intertwined with how we think of ourselves as citizens…

And yet we keep spending: As of 2018, the average household expenditure was $61,224. That’s rent and groceries, but also nonessential items: entertainment, vacation, clothes, plus all that other random stuff that ends up in your shopping cart.

That kind of spending is what our current economic model is based on: Americans of all class levels buying things and always wanting to buy more, regardless of their actual means. But when a society-throttling, economy-decimating pandemic comes along, what happens when that ability — and, just importantly, that desire — goes away? In April, retail sales fell an astonishing 16.4%, far more than the 12.3% economists had predicted. Clothing store purchases went down by 78.8%; furniture and home furnishings plummeted 58.7%. If you feel like you’re buying far less than at any point in recent history, you’re very much not alone. But will American identities and habits actually change, or will we just figure out a new and COVID-19–compatible way to consume at the same rate as before?

The argument makes some sense: many people in the United States have now had a few months where they could not consume in the same ways. And there have been plenty of people in recent decades asking Americans to slow their consumption or change their habits, ranging from sociologist Juliet Schor discussing downsizing or tiny houses or the popularity of Marie Kondo.

Yet, here are a few obstacles to a slow down in consumerism:

  1. As noted in the article, decades of messaging from politicians, advertisers, companies, and residents that consumption is good and acquiring items is a key marker of living the good life. The American Dream is partly about having a lot of stuff.
  2. The interest Americans still have in buying houses. And since the supply is not great, prices may stay high.
  3. The ever-increasing prices of new vehicles and the Americans who want to endlessly purchase pickup trucks and SUVs.
  4. New technology items will continue to emerge, particularly smartphones. But also think about new video game consoles, virtual reality units, home camera systems, electric cars, and so on.
  5. The large houses Americans have compared to the rest of the world. They need to fill all that space with something!
  6. Online ordering makes it very convenient to consume items without much effort. If retailers disappear in large numbers or shopping malls fade away (except for the wealthiest ones),

Absent many more months of staying at home or a large collapse of the American economy, it will be hard to transition away from consumption as Americans have known it to another system.

Making the case for the return to an office

As employers and employees embrace working at home, how hard will it be to convince people to return to an open office? There are physical solutions as well as a larger underlying issue:

There’s a deeper question that needs to be solved at the heart of this effort to virus-proof the open office. What, exactly, is so valuable about working together in the same physical space? If the goal is to again nurture in-person collaboration, office design will have to find ways of making such face-to-face interactions feel safe and comfortable again.

The article has a lot of interesting suggestions about how the spaces can be altered to space people out or separate people. But, I think the larger question is more important: what will be appealing about the open office going forward that employees need a good answer for? If they can be productive from home, why do they need to go to the office?

There is a good argument to be made here for physical space. Social interaction builds up trust and familiarity. People talking with each other in informal settings can exchange ideas and spur creative thinking. Managers and companies may be better able to see what employees are doing and provide help and resources when needed. In general, good spaces matter.

It will be interesting to see how different organizations and sectors tackle this. I would imagine those that already have a looser corporate culture or different expectations pre-COVID-19 – think creative industries, some white-collar places, high concentrations of younger workers – will be more open to avoiding the office. Public health and perceptions of it will also play a role as employees and employers consider the risks of traveling, congregating in one place, and anxieties about all of that.

Argument: COVID-19 cases not necessarily because of density but denser housing and work arrangements

Cities may not be the issue when it comes to COVID-19; rather, the larger issue might be density of homes, work, and travel experienced by some.

The inequalities of cities intersect in the rooms where people live and work. “The densest blocks in New York are in Manhattan, and that is not where cases of coronavirus are most frequent. They’re most frequent in Brooklyn and Queens, and in poorer neighborhoods,” says McDonald, lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy and author of the Nature of Cities analysis. “In Manhattan you might have only two people in a studio apartment, and in parts of Brooklyn or Queens you might have a family of five or six people in a room that size.”

An analysis from the housing-focused Furman Center at New York University lays out this answer more starkly: Mortality rates were higher in neighborhoods with lower incomes and less density across the geographic space but more density in a given home. That is, more people sharing a room or an apartment. Parts of the city with more renters living in overcrowded conditions had higher levels of infection, even though they had lower population density. And where more people had college degrees, fewer people got sick—possibly because people without college degrees are less likely to be able to work from home, and more likely to be riding public transit and working with other people, all potential points of exposure to the disease.

Class and race differences manifest in differing risk. “For some people who have been exposed, or are experiencing symptoms, staying home is not always the obvious course of action,” says Molly Franke, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. People who don’t have sick leave, who might lose their wages or jobs if they don’t show up, don’t have the option of sheltering in place. They’re out in the world, with more chances to encounter the disease and bring it home to the people they live with. And then, Franke says, things get even worse: “For a patient with Covid-19 to successfully isolate, there must be a separate bedroom and at least two weeks worth of supplies.” Who can afford all that?

On May 18, statistics finally confirmed what the Furman Center analysis had implied. The New York City Department of Health released numbers on deaths from Covid-19 by zip code, and the accompanying map is clarifying: The death rate has been higher in poorer neighborhoods where more people of color live. When Covid-19 came to New York City, rich people threw their Rimowa rolling bags into their Audi Q8s and decamped. But people who are less likely to have access to health care, less likely to have jobs they can do from home, more likely to share housing—as usual, they’re the ones who bear the brunt of the disease. Population density hasn’t been the issue, except on the spatial scale where it’s a proxy for inequality.

The logical next question to me is whether these patterns hold across other cities and communities. Are the unequal outcomes among blacks in Chicago and Latinos in the Chicago suburbs due to the same factors? Do the same patterns hold in Los Angeles where car travel is more common? Would the spread of cases in food processing plants also fit within this explanation (denser working conditions, lower-wage workers living in different conditions)? And if people have resources, they have more space and ability to avoid other people. It would be worth seeing if this applies across the board as well or if working in certain jobs or settings would limit the advantages.

Thinking long-term, I am sure there is more to come on the differential effects of COVID-19.

Finding uses for the “big empties” in the Chicago suburbs

When businesses move their headquarters from sprawling suburban campuses to the city center, they leave behind a lot of building space and land:

Inside the sprawling, 2.4 million-square-foot headquarters — composed of seven interconnected office buildings — there is an almost eerie ghost-town quality, former employees describe. The bank, dry cleaners, hair salon, coffee shop and small sundry shop that once lined the corridor of the main atrium have all closed. Gone, too, are the Sbarro’s and Panda Express restaurants.

Over the years, Sears has hired leasing agents to bring in sublessors without much success. Today, with the economy uncertain and Sears’ days seemingly numbered, the building has become an even harder sell. Only about 3% of the complex is leased to outside tenants…

If Transformco tried to sell the campus, it would face long odds, local real estate experts said. The large complex, custom-built for Sears, is nearly 30 years old. Suburban business parks are as outdated and obsolete as fax machines…

The entire region is a buyer’s market, burdened by other big empties. Right down the road from Sears headquarters are two such examples.

Perhaps the easiest answer to filling these properties is to bulldoze them and build housing on the land. In the suburbs in which these suburban headquarters are located (Hoffman Estates, Oak Brook for McDonalds, etc.), there would be demand for housing.

But, bulldozing buildings adds costs as would changing the infrastructure for the site. Plus, as the article notes, housing would not bring in the same kind of revenue or status that a large corporation did. Additionally, more housing might even lead to a bigger tax burden for the rest of the community if there is more demand for schools and other local services.

Thus, suburbs often hope to find corporate partners for such properties. Finding someone to take over the whole property would be ideal. Or, perhaps create a mixed-use community with some residences but also businesses and restaurants. See more on efforts in Hoffman Estates to transform a former AT&T campus into a “metroburb” (also mentioned in the article).

Side note: this does not bode well for large tech campuses amid a possible shift to more employees working from home.