Learning, shopping, communities, travel, and entertainment: coming out of COVID, which changes were temporary and which are permanent?

Five sectors of human life have been changed permanently by the pandemic. Center Director Jeffrey Cole digs into what’s different forever.

By Jeffrey Cole

As millions of Americans celebrated Independence Day by pouring onto to airplanes and heading to beaches, parks, sporting events, and concerts, we also celebrated independence from the COVID pandemic.

This pandemic is over — whether it really is or not. It doesn’t matter what science or common sense say, even as cases and hospitalizations are climbing again.

We need COVID to be over.

At the Center, we believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime disruption (hopefully something worse doesn’t come along). First graders many years in the future will regale their grandchildren with stories of scrubbing mail, wearing masks, and quarantining at home for months at a time.

Two months into the pandemic, we launched the COVID Reset Project that tracks seven sectors of life to understand how they may or may not permanently change.

The seven areas are:

  • Health and well-being (mental and physical)
  • Learning
  • Shopping and banking
  • Homes and communities
  • Work
  • Travel
  • Entertainment.

After two years of tracking, we can see that five of the seven sectors have clarified. We have a clear picture for at least the next few years of what changed and how permanent that change will be.

Those five sectors are:

1. Learning

No one was ready for the complete shift of learning from the classroom to a screen at home. Millions had to buy new equipment (cameras, lights, microphones) and acquire or upgrade up their broadband. Others were not able to participate, frozen out of learning. “Zoom School” was adequate for some students, but even if they could learn what they needed (a questionable proposition), they were denied social interaction. I used to tell my college students that only 10% of what they learned in college came from the classroom.

Most students felt they could not learn nearly as well outside of the classroom.

For the first time, students were clamoring to be back in school. Now that they are, there will be remote learning around the edges for occasional electives or summer classes. But the lesson was “learned” and learning has moved back to the classroom. That is where students, teachers and parents want it to be.

2. Shopping and banking

Amazon has always felt like a lifeline, but it became a literal lifeline during COVID. Of those who never bought online before 2020, within a month 40% were doing so. The rest of us started buying things we had never bought online before, especially food, whether from supermarkets or delivered from restaurants. Toilet paper, cleaning supplies and other household staples were purchased by many through the internet for the first time.

As we got somewhat comfortable leaving the home again (most wearing masks), we flocked to shopping malls. We wanted to be with other shoppers (although not too close), to touch products, and to talk to salespeople. But we bought online. The gains of electronic commerce were solidified and have not been given back. On the money side, we were forced to give up using cash, but we came to like not going to the bank and found contactless pickup or delivery convenient. The transition to a cashless society made enormous progress during COVID. It will never reverse.

3. Homes and Communities

Even though locked down in our homes, we didn’t use that as an opportunity to get to know and rely on our neighbors. Going into COVID, only 22% of us knew our neighbors well. Despite our neighbors being the only outsiders we could see in-person, socially distanced as we got our mail or deliveries, and took out the trash, only 24% want to know our neighbors well. A lost opportunity.

Many in urban centers, living close to other people, left (if they could) for more rural or suburban areas. That migration has now reversed. During the early days, many of us repaired our homes, or changed the features that we could do ourselves. Now, contractor’s workbooks are full of requests from those who want to add rooms or change the design of their home. Some are moving, but the numbers are consistent with the past. Our communities have remained stable.

At the Center, we believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime disruption (hopefully something worse doesn’t come along). First graders many years in the future will regale their grandchildren with stories of scrubbing mail, wearing masks, and quarantining at home for months at a time. Two months into the pandemic, we launched the COVID Reset Project that tracks seven sectors of life to understand how they may or may not permanently change.

4. Travel

This is one of the sectors that saw enormous change that we see as permanent. The change signifies both exceptionally good and unwelcome news for the travel industry. Leisure travel is exploding, surpassing levels ever seen, even before COVID. We have been stuck in the same place looking at the same four walls for over two years. We want out! We will go anywhere and everywhere.

Airfares and hotel room rates have soared, some as much as 400% higher than before 2020. It doesn’t matter. Many of us accumulated money we saved by not traveling or going to restaurants or concerts during COVID. We have enough cash on hand and pent-up travel lust to last at least through the summer. Then perhaps demand will drop and prices along with it. But, as more of us work from home to at least some degree (2 days a week?) our need to get out and be in other places will remain high. Leisure travel is reaping the benefits.

On the other hand, business travel is suffering. Zoom made business meetings and maintaining professional relationships possible. Some of us complained it didn’t feel like the real thing, but others were fully satisfied. It became routine for me to speak in London, Melbourne, and Chicago in the same day without leaving my home office. The bar to justify business travel has been raised. Travel managers will scrutinize every request to distinguish which meetings workers need to be at and which they just want to attend. Our projection is that one-third of business travel will never return.

5. Entertainment

Within a week of March 15, 2020, almost every movie theater, sporting event, concert, and theme park closed for at least a year. This was unprecedented. Being at home with so much time, we all moved to television, especially streaming. Netflix, with its miles-wide and deep catalog of programming, was ready for the pandemic. Apple TV+ and Disney+, which premiered just a few months before COVID, were not ready. They quickly diverted movies intended for the theater to streaming. It worked. Streaming was up 72%. Those gains have held even as we left the home.

For years, studios wanted to narrow the 90-day window between when a film appears in the theater and is available on home video. They also wanted to test Day & Date to premiere a film on streaming the same day it opened in a theater. Theater owners, happy with the current system (there were 9 $1 billion films in 2019—a record) wanted no part of experimentation: they had no idea how it would turn out. Any time a studio floated the idea of an experiment, theater owners threatened boycotts or other punitive actions.

They shouldn’t have worried so much. With theaters closed and several chains on the brink of bankruptcy, studios could do whatever they wanted. They had films that were ready to go and no place to show them. Theater owner objections didn’t matter. The experiments premiering on streaming began.

Some films went directly to streaming services as part of the monthly subscription (Hamilton, Soul, Greyhound). Others were attached to streamers with a $30 extra charge (Mulan). Warner jumped fully into Day and Date by premiering all their 2021 films (Dune, Matrix, In the Heights) on HBO Max the same day they opened in theaters.

After a year and a half of experimenting, the lessons were clear: audiences want to see big films in the theater. Paramount’s decision to not release Top Gun: Maverick until theaters were fully open proved a master stroke. Blockbusters have returned to the theater. Studios abandoned Day and Date (but now have 45-day windows). Streaming has retained its gains, but the big winner is the movie theaters. They should have let the experiments run their course years ago, but they could never be sure they would prevail. They did.

These are the five of the seven sectors we tracked that now have ribbons around them: we know what changed and which changes will remain.

There are two sectors that are still in disarray and are completely unsorted in the middle of 2022: work and health/well-being. I’ll take a deep dive into those two sectors — and how they are likely to change — in my next column.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

July 6, 2022