Ever since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, life in the United States has changed in big and small ways. Some of the changes - like toilet paper shortages and social distancing - were temporary. Other shifts have had more staying power, and some new trends are just beginning to emerge.
The Washington Post looked at the state of work, home life and play to find out how we’re living now, three years into pandemic life.
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How we stay healthy
Solo exercise is out. Pandemic restrictions limited us to exercise at home with stationary bikes and resistance bands. In 2023, people appear to be making up for exercise isolation by returning to the gym in larger numbers than before the pandemic. Visits to fitness locations were up 9 percent in February 2023 compared to the same month in 2020, according to Placer.ai, an analytics firm that measures foot traffic data from mobile phones.
We want health care at home. Telehealth use skyrocketed during the pandemic, especially for mental health care and even for pets. In 2021, nearly one in four surveyed Americans reported seeing a health care provider via a video or phone appointment, and 44 percent of all behavioral health appointments were remote. In a 2022 Rock Health survey of over 8,000 adults, 51 percent of respondents said they preferred telehealth over in-person care for minor illnesses.
Although the use of telehealth among Medicare recipients declined in the first half of 2022, it’s use is still double that of pre-pandemic levels.
More people are taking care of their mental health. More than 12 percent of adults received mental health counseling in the first half of 2022, up from 9.7 percent in the first half of 2019, according to data from the CDC. Feelings of depression were starkest in young Americans. Among adults, only 18- to 34-year-olds saw an increase in regular feelings of depression: The share increased from 4.5 percent in 2019 to 6 percent in 2022. Recent data from the CDC found alarming rates of sadness among teen girls.
[America shut down in response to covid. Would we ever do it again?]
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How we nurture
Working mothers are still struggling. The burdens of child care appear to be pushing more women out of the workforce, based on a 2022 Health and Human Services report. The number of mothers with preschool-age children who worked outside the home have steadily declined over the past three years, with the sharpest declines seen among Black and Hispanic mothers.
In 2021, mothers were shouldering a disproportionate burden of “secondary” child care - defined as care provided while doing other activities, including a job. This metric didn’t change for fathers during the pandemic, who spend about 4 hours a day multitasking. But for mothers it surged to 7.1 hours daily, up from 5.8 in 2019, according to the American Time Use Survey. It’s unclear if that trend has continued.
Dogs and cats have joined the family. In 2016, about 38 percent of U.S. households had a dog. That number spiked to 45 percent in 2020, as more people sought the company of pets during pandemic lockdowns. Pet ownership has held steady through 2022, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Even though most people have returned to work, most have kept their furry family members, according to Shelter Animals Count, a national database. And there’s good news for cats: The number of homes with at least one cat jumped to 29 percent in 2022, up from 26 percent in 2020.
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How we work
Welcome to the Tuesday-Thursday office. Hybrid work appears to be here to stay. In major metro areas, visits to office buildings in February 2023 were 42 percent lower than the same period in 2020, according to Placer.ai. Among workers who did go to the office, visits were higher from Tuesday to Thursday.
More Americans are opting to work for themselves. The number of new business applications per month increased by 50 percent in January 2023, compared to 2020, following a large spike in applications in the summer of 2020, census data show. During the same period, the estimated number of new businesses increased by 38 percent.
The rise of “bleisure.” With the increased flexibility afforded by remote work, people are more likely to mix work with vacation, dubbed “bleisure.” According to Expedia, 76 percent of business travelers surveyed in the summer of 2022 planned to extend their work trips for leisure purposes in the next year - another 26 percent said they planned to combine remote work with vacation. In 2018, Expedia found that only about 60 percent of business trips were extended for leisure purposes.
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How we learn
Children fell behind. The pandemic took a toll on learning. Nearly half of students started the 2022-23 school year behind their grade level in at least one academic subject, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Average math scores dropped five points in fourth grade and eight points in eighth grade in 2022, down from 2019. Similarly, the average reading score fell three points in both grade levels from 2019 to 2022.
“We’re likely to continue to see gaps for those students who were in the education system when the pandemic hit,” said Dan Goldhaber, a director at the American Institutes for Research. “Hopefully, that gap will shrink a little bit, but honestly, we’re not on pace for a full recovery.”
The college admissions process is changing for some. In early 2020, many prominent colleges and universities temporarily suspended requirements for SAT or ACT scores because of the public health emergency. Now a number of prominent schools, including Columbia University in New York and William & Mary in Virginia have extended those measures for multiple years or even indefinitely. Others have remained test-optional for students applying to enter through fall 2025.
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How we eat
We’re eating more takeout. Overall, we’re dining out less than before the pandemic. Today, nearly 40 percent of all restaurant traffic is in the drive-through lane, while visits to physical restaurants were 22 percent lower in February 2023 than in 2020, according to Placer.ai.
Many of the shifts restaurants made at the start of the pandemic, like pivoting to takeout and delivery and offering outdoor dining, are now considered permanent features, according to the National Restaurant Association. About two-thirds of adults surveyed said they were more likely to order food to-go than they were before the pandemic.
We’re going back to the grocery store. Despite the rising cost of food, grocery stores are more popular than before the pandemic, with visits around 5 percent higher at the end of 2022 than in 2019, according to Placer.ai. At-home food spending remains strong, increasing by over 6 percent in the last quarter of 2022, compared to the year before.
But more people are going hungry. One in 6 Americans relied on food banks in 2021 - that’s 53 million people, compared with 40 million before the pandemic, according to FeedingAmerica.org. Large food-relief organizations are concerned that the growth in food insecurity will continue.
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How we play
Travel demand has skyrocketed. The chance to travel has never been more appealing - 43 percent of those surveyed by Expedia Group at the end of last year said that travel is more important to them now than before the pandemic. Bookings for accommodations were the highest ever on record in the second quarter of 2022. Cities like New York, Orlando, Las Vegas and Honolulu were popular destinations for North American travelers. International travel still lags, but is expected to reach pre-pandemic levels in 2023, according to data from Hopper.
Movie theaters and concerts haven’t come back - yet. Monthly visits to theaters and music venues are still down by about 25 percent in February 2023 compared to February 2020, Placer.ai data shows. However, visits to movie theaters, while still lower than 2019 levels, steadily increased in 2022, spurred especially by major blockbuster movie releases.
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How we spend
We’re spending more. Inflation-adjusted personal consumer expenditures, or PCE, increased by 7 percent from February 2020 to over $14 trillion in January 2023. Retail sales in particular have increased by 30 percent between the fourth quarter of 2019 and 2022, census data from the Department of Commerce shows.
Online shopping is popular, but in-person shopping is coming back. While e-commerce grew during the pandemic, there are signs that people want to visit stores in person. E-commerce accounted for 14 percent of all retail sales at the end of 2022, up from 11 percent in 2019. At the same time, monthly visits to discount and dollar stores are up by 21 percent in 2022 compared to 2019, and visits to superstores like Target have returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to Placer.ai.
“Convenience is important, but it is not the end-all be-all,” said Ethan Chernofsky, vice president of marketing for Placer.ai.
But we’re not shopping at malls. Visits to indoor and outlet malls in February 2023 were down nearly 20 percent compared to 2020, according to Placer.ai.
Home improvement is out. Self-care is in. While people flocked to home improvement and electronics stores early in the pandemic, interest is approaching pre-pandemic levels. Now foot traffic data from Placer.ai indicates that people are spending more time in beauty and spa stores - monthly visits were about 20 percent higher to these locations in February 2023 relative to February 2020.
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How we connect
We’re conflicted about dating. The time Americans spend on dating apps increased 26 percent in 2022, compared to 2019, according to data.ai. Tinder, Match and Bumble are some of the most popular dating platforms. Yet, fewer single adults are looking for a relationship or to go on dates in 2022 compared to 2019 - a decline driven largely by single men, according to Pew.
We’re seeing each other less IRL. In May 2022, 35 percent of U.S. adults surveyed by Pew felt that social gatherings had become less important to them since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. In-person social interaction time has been decreasing since the early 2000s, but it’s still unclear if this trend will continue.
While we don’t know when or if in-person socializing will fully return, the pandemic fueled a shift to online spaces. Smaller communities on platforms like Discord, Reddit and Facebook groups are particularly important, according to research by Sohyeon Hwang, a PhD student at Northwestern University who studies how people govern, organize and collaborate online. On Discord, a platform with voice, video and text chat, the unique spaces for each community, have 15 people or less, according to Mindy Day, Discord’s senior manager of community. “The small communities reflect a kind of desire for more localized or intimate interactions,” said Hwang, “even if people don’t actually know each other in person.”