We’re fully into summer, and kids are looking forward to returning to a school year that feels a little more normal (and largely in person). Roughly two-thirds of adult Americans vaccinated – over half fully – and both new cases and deaths have fallen dramatically in the past month, to levels comparable to the very beginning of the pandemic. This is phenomenal news.
As the U.S. transitions from full pandemic to full recovery, we wanted to know: what can the data tell us about where we are now, and where we’re headed?
As of the end of May, over 60% of adult Americans said they are fully vaccinated against COVID, and another 12% plan to be, leaving about a quarter who had no plans to be vaccinated. Of those who are still reluctant to get the vaccine, 78% said that they’re not likely to change their minds.
Of course, that was over a month ago. In late June, news broke that over 99% of recent COVID deaths in the U.S. were among people who are unvaccinated, indicating that the vaccines have been radically successful in preventing deaths. Given time, this data may convince some of the vaccine-hesitant to rethink their position.
As we begin summer, two-thirds of Americans say that their lives are either completely or somewhat back to normal, and for the first time since the start of the pandemic, more than half say that we should go about business as usual, rather than staying home to try to contain viral spread.
At the same time, over half report that COVID is still creating some disruption, possibly related to the widespread continuation of remote work. While this is a huge drop from the peak (80% experiencing disruption), the pandemic – while perhaps fading – is still very present.
And, as it’s been since the beginning of the pandemic, all of these questions vary based on location and – more telling – political leaning. Republicans are much more vaccine-reluctant than Democrats, and more likely to report both a return to normalcy and a belief that we should return to pre-pandemic behavior.
So, we’re kind of back to normal. But also not. And it depends on who you are.
To get a clearer picture, let’s dive into some specific, non-health-related areas of our lives that COVID has impacted most.
Summer travel plans have rebounded almost entirely, with four in ten Americans planning some kind of vacation – nearly the same level as 2019. Spending seems to have recovered, as well, with only 13% of travelers planning to cut their budgets.
This doesn’t mean that COVID isn’t impacting choices, however, and for many, caution is still the name of the game. Among non-travelers, 41% cite health concerns as the reason they’re not planning excursions.
Even when people are traveling, they are more likely to choose a direct flight and rent private accommodations, in an effort to reduce prolonged contact with strangers. They are more likely to be traveling by car (as evidenced by the skyrocketing car rental fees and lack of availability).
And parents are highly reluctant to take their children on flights – only 17% say they would be comfortable exposing their children to plane travel.
When it comes to summer travel, we’re back to normal! Kind of.
Many of us are cautiously, excitedly, returning to restaurants and bars. In 2020, Americans saying they felt safe dining at a restaurant never topped 42%. As of May, we’re at more than 70%.
And overall, sales in this industry have reflected that, recovering almost completely to pre-pandemic levels as of May. An argument can be made that this is partially because restaurants and bars have raised their prices, and if you adjust for that, we’re still down 3%, but that seems small potatoes for an industry that all but collapsed a year ago.
That being said, there is still a gap when it comes to perceptions of safety. Over 70% of us may feel safe at restaurants, but that splits between those who feel comfortable dining outside (76%) versus inside (67%).
So we’ve totally recovered! Almost.
Home sales surged during 2020, but since April have slowed down considerably, as existing homes availability has dwindled and the cost for new construction has shot up (18.1% over May 2020).
Those who didn’t move outright during the pandemic, invested in home improvements – we called it “hibernesting” – and the industry reached $747 billion in the U.S. in 2020, a 17% increase over 2019. As with home sales, this trend has slowed a bit, which may be for a couple of reasons, including the increased spending associated with a return to normal (e.g., traveling and eating out).
This slowing is also certainly being compounded by supply chain issues, a result of high demand and backlogs from shutdowns earlier in the pandemic:
While the market may have slowed, it’s unlikely to stall. According to a recent study, a whopping 72% of Millennials say they’ll buy a home within the next two years. As the supply chain problems eventually resolve, industries related to home buying and improvement are likely to continue strong.
What do we make of all this?
With more than 600,000 Americans lost to COVID, for many families and communities there is no “back to normal.”
And while the data tells us that collectively we’re on the path to recovery, we’re not there yet.
Even for those of us who haven’t personally lost a loved one to the pandemic, many of us are returning to our offices, our churches, our eateries with a sense of disorientation and lingering unease.
Things feel kind of normal.
Except they don’t.
The data show us a society in the middle of a profound transition, but – for now – they can’t predict what the lasting impact of the pandemic will be.