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Even before coronavirus shuttered their colleges, disappeared their first jobs, or derailed burgeoning careers, millions of America’s “emerging adults” were stuck at home. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of 25-to-34-year-olds living with their parents doubled to reach 22%.
Blame the battering ram of a bad economy. Recessions in 2001 and 2008, along with wage gaps, growing college costs and the crushing weight of student debt, have left younger Americans late to reach traditional adulthood milestones like marriage, homebuying, and kids. The Washington Post reported that, compared to Boomers and Gen X’ers, Millennials — the “unluckiest generation” — have experienced the slowest economic growth. Members of Generation Z now emerging from college may face even tougher challenges.
Coronavirus isn’t helping. Facing down a locked-down spring and now, an aimless summer, young people have embarked on a mass migration back to the homes they once shared with their parents. It makes sense for recents grads and young Millennials to ride out economic uncertainty under a sturdy roof: They’re also the ones who are more likely to live in cities with hopped-up rents, and early unemployment statistics suggest they’re already faring worse after layoffs.
The pandemic also introduced other, more emotional, reasons to return. Stuck in small apartments with roommates whose risk-taking they can’t control, stripped of the mobility and fun that urban living advertises, untethered to a physical office and still learning basic adult survival skills, some young people are eager for the familiarity of family. Others have been lured back by anxious parents in need of care or company, or by the prospect of pandemic luxuries like a car, a backyard, and home-cooked meals. As death counts rise, many are anxious themselves — that they or their loved ones will suffer illness alone.
Whatever the reason for retreat, this Great Regression could end up leaving an enduring mark, experts suggest.
“There are a lot of factors that go into feeling like an adult: Some of that is living independently or being financially independent, or having a career or starting a family,” says Susan Anderer, a psychologist who focuses on young people in transitional phases. The coronavirus has put a lot of that on pause, and could set people up for longer-term inertia. “At any developmental stage there’s a push-pull,” she says. “There’s a push to want to move forward developmentally and also a tug backwards, because growing up is scary; it’s the unknown, you don’t know what it looks like on the other side.”
With bars and clubs closed and social lives on hold, the backward tug can feel stronger. “When the pull of being a grown-up is no longer there,” Anderer says, “why not be at home?” But risk-taking, exploring, and making mistakes out in the real world is part of identity formation: “It’s harder to envision who you want to become surrounded by your old self.”
It’s hardly a universal problem. Many young people lack the luxury of flying back to the nest, or don’t have a house (or their own bedroom) to go back to. Just as they increasingly live multi-generationally, more than a million Millennials support their parents financially; rather than becoming newly dependent, many are being thrust into expanding their caretaker roles themselves. And even if you’re not at your parents’ house, the coronavirus era wouldn’t be the time to take risks.
As weeks stretch into months, I spoke with a few just-out-of-college Gen Z-ers, and a few true Millennials (up to 39 years old) about how it feels to be back with their parents, and what they see coming next. Their reasons for returning vary widely, but many of them are experiencing the sensation — in turns terrifying and comforting — of interrupting their independent existence and plunging into limbo. Against familiar backdrops of high school posters and old photographs, they’re grieving, arguing and dreaming about their futures. What I found is that rather than a total regression, self-isolation at home has offered a different kind of personal growth: a pause for reflection before the race to adulthood resumes again.
Here are their stories, in their words — condensed and edited for clarity.
“Not being at home for so long caused a lot of pressure on our relationship”
Ann Tran, 23
Hometown: Dorchester, Massachusetts
Pre-Covid location: Boston, Massachusetts
Moved back home: Mid-March
I grew up in Boston and Dorchester, which is a neighborhood in greater Boston with a pretty strong Vietnamese community. I moved to Pennsylvania for college and then came back in 2018. I chose to live in Boston again to re-ground myself and stay at home for a little bit of time before exploring the unknown, I guess. I wanted to feel supported by, and also support, my mom and my grandfather, who I’m very close to. I moved in with my mom for probably six to eight months.
Our relationship really deteriorated in that time. I think it was hard for her to recognize me as an independent person. [She’s] a single mom in a small household, and we have an intense and unique relationship: We are really close friends. And there’s also an expectation of parental respect. Not being at home for so long and not really feeling interested in that kind of family structure caused a lot of pressure on our relationship.
I made the decision to move out in September, which was really hard for her. She’s very unhappy about that, and it was another point of contention in our relationship. I’m an only child; she has a lot of expectations. I feel like the idea of moving out, in an Asian household, is not as well received. I guess she would ideally want me to live with her forever.
I stayed in Boston, a couple miles away, living with friends, and found myself a lot happier. And I was able to manage our relationship better. Every week, we would have brunch together and do some sort of hobby or chores, and established a newfound rhythm to seeing each other and appreciating time spent with each other. I think it really healed our relationship to be farther apart, and to feel like I was making making decisions on my own.
And then Covid happened. My roommates moved back [with their parents], and I tried to stay at home with my mom. Moving back in has been has been hard in a lot of ways, but also more manageable, I think, from the lessons learned living apart. For example, just keeping distance except for errands or meals and understanding what I can control, which is my reaction to what she does. If she’s angry or if she’s upset, there’s not really much that I can do about that, even if I tried to calm the situation.
I think if I pushed, I could have stayed in my own apartment, but there’s a great luxury afforded to be able to live here and feel safe and to spend time with someone in person without being afraid. It feels like otherwise I’d just be alone. We’ve been taking a lot of walks on the beach; we’ve been volunteering every week for a soup kitchen. Our arguments come out of these unprompted situations where she feels almost threatened by the idea that I don’t really want to spend time with her. And so I’ve worked on making sure that our interactions and our time spent together are really well-treated, or appreciated.
I’ve been thinking a lot about growing up as an only child. The other week, I was doing a jigsaw puzzle, and it reminded me of when I was younger and would sit in the bathroom for hours just by myself, after a shower and just — I wear glasses and I’m pretty blind without them, so I’d just not really stare at anything. There’s this stillness, almost, that I think comes with being an only child — an acceptance of the stillness that I feel like I’ve felt very far away from before March. Every weekend was planned. I’d get a meal with someone for brunch and then do errands, then do something for dinner and go to some event at night, or a party. All of those things sound so exhausting now. It’s very hard to imagine re-entering society with that same kind of energy.
In the fall, I’ll be moving to London for grad school. The concerns before I got into school around Covid were really a fear of — just kind of acknowledging the luxuries of my job and my home now. There are so many people who are unemployed out there, and struggling, and it just felt almost absurd for me to willfully opt out of this job and period that can be very comfortable. And I think my mindset changed over the last couple of weeks. It’s almost like, because life is so fragile I should be doing this, and pursuing an interest of mine, and trying to grow in unexpected ways. Not in spite of this.
“My old name is up everywhere”
Hometown: Central Virginia
Pre-Covid location: Washington, D.C.
Moved back home: Early April
*Name changed to protect his identity.
I recently broke up with my partner of many years, and so I had to get a new apartment. Right when all of this was starting, in March, I moved into a group house where I didn’t have a preexisting relationship with any of my roommates.
I’d been living in D.C. under lockdown for about two and a half weeks and I was getting into a really good groove. But then I found out that my roommate’s girlfriend is a health care worker, working with patients who are positive for Covid. I had asked if it was possible that, when the girlfriend was over, could they just hang out in my roommate’s room or outside instead of in the common spaces — and my roommate told me that I was being panicky and that my paranoia was bad for her mental health.
So after a few sleepless nights, I decided that the best bet was for me to move back in with my parents, which was a stressful decision. I’m a trans person, and we have had some pretty hard years together. My parents were very, very not on board with me transitioning; my dad didn’t call me the right name until I was 23. Pretty much every time I would come home during college, we would argue. It was just too much for me mentally. I haven’t lived here for a while — every summer after college, I stayed in my college town.
I came out to them when I was 18 — so, 12 years ago — and so I thought that maybe now it would be a little bit better: I am secure in my identity, and I have a really strong support system. And it hasn’t been quite as bad as I thought it was gonna be. But then in the past few weeks, it has just become clear that we as a team cannot live together anymore.
They’ve not been outright rude without anything. They’re not trying to be argumentative. They’re not trying to be anti-trans. But the ways in which they live are not great. For instance: I gave myself a buzz cut for quarantine, and my mom hasn’t been happy about it, and she keeps telling me I need to grow my hair out. It feels really trans-related to me. Because a lot of our relationship growing up was my mom telling me that what I was wearing wasn’t acceptable and that the decisions that I was making about my body that for me felt affirming, to her felt wrong.
Again, I’m 30 years old, and I came out 12 years ago. I realized last week that my dad still hadn’t changed my name in his phone. Which, of course, is his prerogative, but that tells me that he’s clearly not over it.
In some ways, being back in this physical space has been kind of dysphoria-inducing and stressful, and sort of at odds with the life that I’m living now. My old name is up everywhere, and there are a lot of old photos of me. And then I’m surrounded by all of these things from high school, which are reminding me of a time when I was feeling really sad and trapped and like I was never going to be able to look like how I wanted to look. But in other ways, it has also been kind of empowering to be able to be around my old name and not feel really stressed out about it; to notice it and be like, that’s silly, and keep going on with my day.
It’s also fun — this desk is where I realized that I was trans, in 2007. I was reading online forums and happened to read the experience of a trans man, and then I realized, “Oh my God, that’s me.” And so it’s really fun to be here with a beard and my new male-pattern baldness. There were times in high school when I felt like life was never going to go in the direction that I wanted it to. And it’s really strange to be at my house because of circumstances like Covid, where I have no control over it — yet at the same time, I am in that physical space from my childhood, having lived 10 years of autonomy and happiness, and realizing the contrast between where I was when I was 17, and where I am now that I’m 30. It’s just so different.
If I lived in my parents’ hometown [long-term], I was thinking, I’ll only be Zooming with my friends in the same way as if I was in D.C. So is there much of a difference? But then I thought more about it. A lot of my thinking about where I’m living right now is currently based upon where my queer community is. I don’t know any trans people in my hometown right now. As queer people whose families often reject us — whether or not they mean to — that community is such an important stand-in for family, that I don’t see how I could live in an area without a large population of queer and trans people that not only share my identity but also share more specific interests. I’m just not sure how I could do that.
“It feels like I’m living in the shell of my former life”
Ellis Hyman, 23
Hometown: Calabasas, California
Pre-Covid location: Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Moved back: March 17
I started working at a production company [in New York City] in the middle of February. By the beginning of March, they were like, yep, we’re shutting down everything. I thought, I probably should get out of New York at this point. I’m going to be stuck in a tiny little place where I’m going to run into a lot of people, versus be stuck in a place where I don’t want to be but I have more space, I have access to a car, and I can avoid people more.
I felt kind of cowardly because my friends were still in New York and they’re making do, and I went home to be more comfortable. But I’m glad I left: I would have probably been a bit less happy being stuck in one tiny room.
I have a good relationship by parents, but they’re in the middle of a separation from each other. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to leave L.A. in the first place — just to get out of the middle of all that drama. Now I’m right back in the middle of it. I was still talking to them a lot when I was not living in California, but now I’m living with just my mom; my dad’s in a different apartment.
I think it’s really good for my mom because she’s been alone the past 10 months or so, and just having company has been really nice, especially right now. You know, everyone is online making memes of “being quarantined with a significant other versus quarantine being single.” I can’t imagine how hard it is for her.
My room has not been physically touched since my high school graduation. Literally, the calendar on my wall says “June 2014,” the month and date I graduated high school. It is a complete time warp being back there. It’s not awful, but it just feels like I’m living in the shell of my former life. I think it’s making me really think about who I used to be, and who I’m becoming. All I have to do right now is think about the future, because I can’t do anything besides sit in my home. It’s making me very emotional and sentimental, and, like, stupid.
The short-term future is to get back to New York as soon as possible. But nobody really knows what it’s going to look like after this has subsided — people are saying that things are going to change permanently; the way we restructure society and interact with each other. And I’m kind of believing it, and also kind of not believing it. It might not be fun to live in a dense urban place, because things might really be different!
I’m receiving unemployment right now, so I’m able to pay for the basic necessities, but that will run out eventually. I didn’t really have a specifically steady career to go back to — working in production entertainment, that’s fully on pause right now. So there’s not really a reason to go back until it’s safe, and also until I can get a job. The future is very malleable at the moment, which is exciting and also scary.
“Every day is up in the air”
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
Pre-Covid location: New York City
Moved back: March 12
*Isabel asked CityLab not to use her last name, because she didn’t want to jeopardize her future employment chances.
When my best friend first suggested that we should go home to Dallas, I thought that seemed a little dramatic. But in my group chat with friends from college, everyone was like, “Who’s planning on leaving this weekend?” My friends who are teachers, their schools were shutting down. It felt like everyone all at once was under the impression that we needed to leave. Within three hours, I’m like, “Whoa, I need to get out of the city.”
The thing I kept thinking was, New York is a city you want to be in because you’re always out and about, you’re never in your apartment — you’re in crowded spaces, whether that’s a subway ride or a restaurant, or out at a concert. For me, those are the reasons why I wanted to be in New York. I thought, if all of those privileges — because they are privileges — if all those are taken away, then I’ll get pretty lonely and isolated pretty quickly. I packed to be home for two weeks.
My friend — the one who moved back from NYC, too — lives within walking distance from me. It’s been really hot, so it feels like summer. We keep saying, walking in the heat from my house to your house to sit on your front swings feels like high school. Since college started I’ve had summer jobs away from home, so I really haven’t been home in the summer — especially with nothing to do — since high school. I don’t have anything on my schedule for the weekend or for the foreseeable future. That creates a feeling of carefreeness — every day is up in the air, you know?
I keep wanting to do big organizing sessions, and clean up my desk or the shelves or my closet, and then I realize I don’t need the bare minimum in my house here, like I do in New York. But also when I have done those little clean-ups, I keep finding old journals or old letters from friends, or disposable camera pictures. It’s weird having to address where you were at different phases of life. Sometimes I see things from when I was a senior in high school, and I’m like, I think I was a more thoughtful person then, and I wonder why.
For the first month, I kept having that weird feeling where you’re just walking and you’re hit with the most specific memory that makes you cringe really, really hard. Fortunately nothing traumatic, but things like: “Oh, I spilled a bunch of ketchup on my friend’s nice jacket in high school, and that was a really awkward and careless moment.” Or, “Oh, I turned in that assignment late in college for no reason, and I feel like now that professor — who probably doesn’t remember me — thinks that I’m a slacker.”
And I’ve been noticing a lot of times in my past where I failed to be very resilient, or perseverant. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m one year out of college, or it’s because of quarantine, but I feel like that’s something that I regret that keeps coming up. It’s moments where I disappointed someone just because I was being lazy or not working hard enough. And that’s why I’m eager for things to resume and eager to get my next job, so I can prove that wrong.
There’s also just been a lot of reflection on feeling really lucky to be in the situation I’m in, and the weirdness of recognizing that what’s happening right now is causing a lot of suffering to the majority of people in the U.S., but this will not fundamentally change my life — beyond having a little more time to think about what I want to do.
“We’re really feeling the isolation of the single-family detached home”
Allison Wattenbarger, 28
Hometown: Philadelphia area, Pennsylvania
Pre-Covid location: Jerusalem, Israel
Moved back: Mid-March
My siblings and I were homeschooled until high school, which I like to say prepared me very well for the pandemic. Then I went to high school in Philadelphia, and went to Penn for college, then spent a year in Canada, working there; then I did a three-year Master’s of Divinity at Duke University. After that, I had a volunteer fellowship in Jerusalem at an institute that’s run by the University of Notre Dame. It turned into a paid position, working with undergraduates studying abroad there.
In mid-March, all the students had to fly home, and the expat staff were given the choice to stay or go. The rumor was that the airport in Tel Aviv might close, and that we could then ended up being stuck in Israel for months. I’m starting a Ph.D. in the fall, so I didn’t want to be stuck in Israel.
I’ve been bouncing back and forth a lot because I have this kind of weird expat student life — I was back at my parents’ for about three months last spring getting a new visa. This isn’t the first time I’ve been back for an odd extended period since the end of college, but for me, there was a big question of: Would I rather stay in Israel where I have some friends but I can’t see them at all, or go back to Philadelphia? I haven’t lived there, I have friends and connections from high school and college but I don’t have a community. It’s just me and my parents, who I get along with, but do I want to live with them indefinitely? It’s been smooth — I’ve always gotten along with them pretty well. And since I’ve been in and out of the house in the past couple years, I kind of knew what to expect coming back, which is helpful.
I still have some structure in my life — I’m still doing some of my work. My parents both teach and they were teaching up until university semester finished, so we established some new routines that were not part of my childhood life. My mom and I have wine and cheese at 4 p.m. every day.
But it’s also weird, walking around the neighborhood and thinking, this is where I was when I found out that I didn’t get into the college I wanted to go to. A close friend from childhood died of an overdose, and I went to the socially distanced funeral. It was really sad. And it was odd to go to a funeral with all these people I hadn’t seen for 10 years while wearing masks and sunglasses. You can’t recognize who these people are that you saw every day when you were five when they have masks all over their face. It’s a funny old-and-new mash-up.
I had a great little apartment in Jerusalem where I was living on campus and most of the people I knew in Israel were right there across the courtyard. Everybody would hang out every night. Being there for two years really sold me on just living in a place where people to spend time with are just next door. Coming back to the U.S. where my parents live in the city limits, but not downtown, I’m just struck by how much I dislike being a young single person in the semi-suburbs.
That, plus the American response to the pandemic, makes me want to return to being an expat and spend more time outside of the U.S. once I finish school. I definitely have some reverse culture shock preference for more communal ways of living, now that we’re really feeling the isolation of the single-family detached home.
“I don’t think we ever had family dinner as much as we’re having now”
Mikayla Harris, 24
Hometown: Potomac, Maryland
Pre-Covid location: Washington, D.C.
Moved back: Mid-March
My roommate and I had always planned on ending our lease at the end of March, mainly because I was planning on taking time off work to travel before law school. (Obviously that’s not happening.) She was going to move to New York (that didn’t happen, either). Her parents are both doctors in St. Louis, so as Covid started ramping up in March, they were like, you have to get out of there. She panic-packed, and two days later I was panic-packing too.
My brother, who’s 21 and in college, had spring break, so he was going to be home anyway. He’s definitely reverted a lot more than I have. My mom wakes him up every morning and makes breakfast for him. But he’s 21, so I guess it’s slightly different.
We’ve stayed constant in terms of having family dinner every night, but it’s gotten to the point where, since we’re all at home all day, we don’t have any new information to share. Some nights we’re fairly quiet, and other nights we’ll reminisce about things, and sometimes we’ll talk about politics. But in high school, we all had such different schedules. Especially since both my parents worked, I don’t think we ever had family dinner as much as we’re having now. It’s been kind of special.
When I was deciding between law schools this spring, Covid definitely became a factor in a way I didn’t anticipate. In my mind, I was like, OK, if I’m in school across the country, it’s harder to get home. Whereas if I’m someplace driving distance and something like this happens again, it’s just nice to know that it’s close by.
“It’s going to be a really different world”
Maria Buczkowski, 26
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
Pre-Covid location: San Francisco, California
Moved back: Mid-March
I just moved to San Francisco from D.C. about a year ago in July, and I was living in my apartment by myself. I don’t have a car in San Francisco — I walked to work every day or I could use a scooter. My mom kept saying, it’ll be so much easier here. She was really adamant about me coming home, so I did.
At first I didn’t want to come home because I was afraid, if I was asymptomatic, I could get my parents sick; or that after going on the airplane I would potentially come down with Covid. My sister lives in Detroit, so I stayed with her for 14 days and quarantined myself.
I grew up with a family in the automotive industry — my dad has worked for Ford for over 40 years. I also work at Spin, which is owned by Ford, so we nonstop talk about our work, which probably annoys my mom so much. It’s funny because I haven’t owned a car since I was 18. Even though I grew up in a car-centric world, I’ve never really relied on a car. This pandemic has really changed how people are thinking about transportation in general.
I’ve been really lucky, because I’m able to work from home. I think it does make a lot of people reconsider — I mean, I’m paying X amount of money for a place that I’m currently not inhabiting. My lease ends in July, and I’m thinking about going month-to-month after that. I’m a little fearful about going back to San Francisco. It’s going to be a really different world.
“I didn’t expect the crushing feeling of loneliness”
Emily McPherson, 22
Hometown: Denton, Texas
Pre-Covid location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where she works as a researcher for the State House of Representatives.
Moved back: Mid-April
They sent us home from work mid-March — we were all coming to work, and then all of a sudden someone in the building tested positive for Covid. I didn’t mind, at first: I’m pretty introverted so I was vibing, and I really value my independence.
My mom had already texted me saying, “if you want to drive down and be with us you can,” but at that point I wanted to be alone. Once mid-April hit, I was like, alright, I need to not be alone anymore.
It’s kind of weird, because I just graduated college, so for the past 4.5 years I’ve been living away but still financially dependent on my parents. Now I just became financially independent of them, I’m living on my own and paying my own bills. And even though it’s my choice, it’s still really weird to be back with them.
My parents’ house is pretty small — you can pretty much hear everything. My dad is in one room on his Zoom calls, my mom is in another room on her Zoom calls, and then I luckily do not have to participate in Zoom calls. But I have to watch a lot of meetings that are being live-streamed. We’re all in separate rooms, but we still hear each other. When I call my friends or I watch TV, I’m very aware that they can hear me — I don’t necessarily talk to my friends the way I normally would if I were alone; I don’t want to use bad words because my mom is a kindergarten teacher, and she’d kill me.
On the first [of May], my state opened up, and at first it looked like I was going to have to go back as well. So on [a recent] Saturday morning I went back fully expecting to have to stay there — literally as soon as I went home my boss emailed and said, yeah, you can continue working remotely if you want. I stayed the night in my apartment and then drove back down the next day.
I didn’t expect the crushing feeling of loneliness when I got back to my apartment. At first I was thinking, “I’m having a good time at my parents’ house, but pretty soon I’m going to get tired of it and want to go back,” but I’m very surprised because I have not gotten tired of it!
Being at my parents’ house has definitely showed me that when the lease of my apartment is up, I would love to rent a house. I’m nowhere near the stage of life where I can buy a house, but seeing how happy my dog is in the backyard and also how happy I am with a backyard — I’ve been hanging up my hammock and sometimes I work outside — I kind of feel guilty bringing my dog back home to my apartment.
“Both my mom and I keep saying it’s time for me to go”
Alexandra Hiniker, 39
Hometown: Prince George’s County, Maryland
Pre-Covid location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Moved back: March 17
I went to college in Chicago, then graduate school in Poland, studied in France, lived in D.C., Cambodia, Laos, Lebanon. In 2012, I decided to move back to the U.S. and thought New York seemed like the right place to be.
This December, I quit my job. I’d been planning for about 10 years to go back to Cambodia with my mom and dad; I saved up vacation days and asked for my three weeks off, and was denied. I said I have to go now or never, so I quit, with nothing else lined up.
I agreed with my parents that if I didn’t get a new job shortly that I would move home — even though that seemed wild and crazy, and I never wanted to do it. But then on my last day, as I turned in my things to HR, I got another job offer with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It was just funny because I was considering moving home as an option before all this happened.
So I moved to Pittsburgh in January. And then on March 16, my dad had a fatal heart attack.
I came down here to Annapolis, Maryland, on the 17th to be with my mom. It was really scary to come down — it was like, oh my gosh, am I going to bring coronavirus? But it was the right decision, and it’s been wonderful being here. My mom has gotten to Zoom into my life in Pittsburgh — she’s met my coworkers, and my yoga teacher.
I thought it would be for two weeks, but then there was no reason to go back. I’ve been pushing back leaving; every week I’m like, oh I’ll just stay another week, I’ll stay another week. You lose all sense of time. And who gets this opportunity, when they lose a parent, to spend an indefinite amount of time with their family? It’s amazing. I feel so lucky, really. But both my mom and I keep saying it’s time for me to go. I need to leave to understand what happened here. I’m just living in a weird limbo where I don’t — I honestly still think my dad is going to come home. And it’s such a strange feeling.
His birthday was April 4, and we had a Zoom celebration of life, because he was very clear that he wanted a big party. I’d been putting it off, but his brother said we have to do something. And that helped so much. You know, it’s like, “Oh, God, another Zoom,” but it was really great. We’ll have a big party next April.
In terms of deadline to move out, I finally decided. My family never celebrated Father’s Day as a special day. But it’s mid-June, a natural cutoff. That gives me time, and a deadline to go through all my dad’s stuff. I think that it’ll help me process that my dad is actually dead, and that I have to start my life in Pittsburgh and move on. I look forward to helping to build that part of my life.
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During this extraordinary time in America’s cities — weeks of coronavirus lockdowns followed by mass protests against police violence and racial inequality — one theme runs through the twinned crises: the power and value of public spaces.
The nation’s parks experienced a surge of use during the pandemic that closed stores and businesses and kept so many Americans isolated in private. Since March, when coronavirus restrictions in the U.S. were enforced en masse, still-open city park facilities saw soaring numbers of visitors. Popular trails in Dallas, which tracks visitors, saw usage climb from 30% to 75% in march. In Minneapolis, during the still-cold month of March, trails experienced summertime levels of usage. Erie, Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park saw visitor numbers jump 165% year-over-year during the third week of March.
“Parks are the most valuable resource in the city at this point,” says J. Nicholas Williams, director of the Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department in Oakland, which has also seen an uptick in visitors in the last few months.
Then came the protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25, triggering a wave of mass demonstrations that, in venues such as Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, are using these same public spaces as stages for protest. That, too, is part of the critical role they play in urban life.
“The thing I tell people about parks and public spaces is they can be platforms for equity, and the events of the last week in America show the public realm is the essential platform for equity,” says James Hardy, Akron, Ohio’s deputy mayor for integrated development, who focuses on parks and public space. “It’s especially evident when the press and disregarded members of our community need these spaces to communicate truth to power.”
But amid this rediscovery of the value of parks, steep budget cuts now loom: City tax revenue is drying up, the need to provide additional protective gear for staff is expensive, and funds from special permits and fees, from athletic events to large outdoor concerts, may be small or non-existent during this socially distanced summer. The ongoing protests against police brutality and inequality both highlight the importance of public space for civil action and engagement and likely add to repair and maintenance costs.
A survey from the National Recreation and Park Association in mid-April of more than 300 park commissioners found half had been asked to make budget cuts this year between 10% and 20%, and many have already instituted hiring freezes or laid off part-time and seasonal staff. New York City faces a $61.3 million cut in its park budget. Coming shortfalls may mean delayed maintenance, shelved plans and deteriorating facilities.
“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” says Bridget Marquis, director of the Civic Commons Learning Network, a national nonprofit initiative focused on public spaces. “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”
According to Parks and the Pandemic, a report issued last month by the Trust for Public Land, cities are repurposing this open space in ways that aid the civic response to the coronavirus. Toledo, Ohio’s botanical garden, for example, has been transformed into a Covid-19 test site. The report also highlights how the coronavirus, and the nation’s response to it, has accelerated existing divides and inequality. Despite big investments in signature parks like the reconstructed Brooklyn Waterfront or the $100 million expansion of Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, a widespread lack of equitable access to green space remains. That gap stands to widen further with Covid-related budget cuts.
But there’s some cautious hope here, too: This convergence of crises could ultimately help convince local leaders and the public to reconsider the importance of public space, and even see parks as part of a broader plan for economic and social recovery.
“We’re optimistic and excited around the top-to-bottom interest in this issue,” says Benita Hussain, director of the Trust for Public Land’s 10-Minute Walk campaign. “There are challenges, but there is a lot of hope, because the will politically to make public space and parks remain a priority is there.”
Hussain leads the Trust for Public Land’s signature initiative, which calls for making sure every American is within a 10-minute walk to a public park or green space. That goal is far from being realized, with 100 million Americans, and 27 million children, lacking such access. In some cities — such as Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Mesa, Arizona — less than half of residents live that close to a public recreation facility.
“We haven’t been investing in civic infrastructure, parks, and trails,” says Marquis. “I hate to say there’s a silver lining to Covid-19, but it’s a time to recognize what we prioritize in this country. I hope part of the legacy will be an equitable and resilient investment strategy in the public realm.”
It’s not hard to find examples of the public’s new appetite for public space in the midst of a pandemic. While so many places to congregate have closed or changed, parks and public spaces still provide places to relax and decompress while maintaining social distance.
“The Covid-19 response, while clearly necessary, created a huge burden of cabin fever, loneliness, anxiety, stress, and personal loss,” Howard Frumkin, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, told the report’s authors.
Before the coronavirus crisis hit, park finances were on the upswing, according to Charlie McCabe, a city parks researcher with the Trust for Public Land. Public funding for city parks hit roughly $8 billion nationwide in 2019, a slight increase from the last few years, as the robust pre-pandemic economy allowed some cities to invest in improving and reconstructing parks, McCabe says, spending money on newly popular amenities such as dog parks and splash pads, as well as recreation and senior centers.
This resurgence was long delayed: After increasing 15% between 2003 and 2007, city spending on parks plummeted 22% as the Great Recession arrived in 2008, according to the NRPA. Spending was slow to recover. By 2013, parks represented just 1.9% of local government spending, down from 2.2% in 2000.
Coronavirus has forced city park departments to respond to fast-changing public health rules and needs. In addition to opening up trails, adapting space to social distancing, and converting golf courses to parks, a third of park and recreation departments are also offering emergency services, says Kevin Roth, vice president of research, evaluation, and technology at the NRPA. This includes converting recreation centers to shelters, delivering meals, setting up testing sites, and providing day care to children of first responders and health care workers.
“It’s really quite challenging now,” says McCabe. “Many amenities, especially the ones that have been invested in heavily in recent years, have closed due to concerns over close contact, while parks have needed to quickly adapt to provide enough access to walk and bike on trails and open fields, which often get crowded.
Hussain says many park departments are cutting costs by engaging citizens to help; Rochester, New York, has instituted a pack-in pack-out trash policy, similar to what’s seen at national parks. There’s also a legislative push in Congress to get the Great American Outdoors Act, which would add $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and help address the maintenance backlog for the nation’s parks.*
Still other park advocates and staff see this moment of crisis as the right time to make the case for parks as key parts of larger economic recovery, and community investment plans, especially commercial corridors hard hit by both the pandemic and damage during ongoing protests. It’s not just savvy political thinking, but a smart way to integrate smaller, community-focused green space in neighborhood-level development.
In Detroit, where the city faces a $348 million budget shortfall over the next 16 months, park officials point to the ongoing Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a public-private initiative focused on building up commercial corridors across the city, as a model that can help make parks part of broader initiatives. The program, which has made parks and streetscape improvements pillars of the process, aims to make green spaces part of inclusive economic development; that may mean including parks in housing programs, and looking beyond traditional standalone “trees and recreation” thinking to figuring out how parks can fit into larger projects.
“The city just emerged from bankruptcy five years ago, so we’ve been doing economic recovery here ever since,” says Alexa Bush, a design director for Detroit.
Akron’s newly created Office of Integrated Development also focuses on making parks part of larger investments in neighborhoods and civic infrastructure. Hardy, the city’s deputy mayor for integrated development, says that parks programs by themselves can struggle to get funding but fare better when included in larger programs about job access and the quality of public space.
Despite facing an estimated 20% decrease in municipal funding this year, Akron plans to focus on projects and priorities in traditionally redlined and lower-income neighborhoods first, says Hardy. It’s all about being strategic and prioritizing the places that need it the most. Parks, community centers, and libraries are always the easiest to eliminate, Hardy says; he cautions that policymakers desperately need to do the opposite, doubling or tripling investments in public space. He fears that city leaders may look at the protests of the last week and see parks as a thing to cut, to limit the liability that comes from mass civic action. That mindset will only deepen the inequality.
“Part of the reason people have been protesting is disinvestment in public spaces to begin with, especially in black neighborhoods,” he says. “Parks and park access are part of the large narrative of racism and discrimination against African Americans.”
To the extent possible, Akron is trying to say no to cuts, and view recreation as an essential public service. That’s a paradigm shift, and one that, post-Covid, park managers hope becomes standard practice.
“Parks are as important as roads and bridges, they’re not something to get to later,” Hardy says. “They’re where people from different backgrounds come together and find themselves on equal footing. They’re essential to the American experiment, and this is a great opportunity to make that argument.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not accurately describe this legislation.
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There was a time in the not-too-distant past when it wasn’t widely understood that germs could pass from person to person. Before the late 1800s, habits like sharing cups with strangers and spitting in public even amidst crowds weren’t considered unsanitary. Then a tuberculosis outbreak came, and our behavior changed — in some ways irrevocably and in some ways temporarily.
What will coronavirus do to our societal norms and relationships? We only have inklings thus far: Changed social expectations of face masks could be one, a new aversion to face-touching may be another. Images of crowds gathered during Memorial Day weekend may suggest that for some people, few social-distancing norms will stick. Still, past epidemics, disasters, and instances of social isolation have demonstrated how these societal disruptions can alter our behavior for years to come. They’ve also demonstrated time and again that humans are fundamentally resilient, making adjustments in the short-term but also falling back into old habits once an acute risk has passed.
Take the example of shaking hands. If it were up to Anthony Fauci, we might never shake hands again. But history suggests that handshakes, fraught with so much societal weight, come and go with waves of public health scares.
While there are no exact corollaries to our current cocktail of germs and social isolation — not even the 1918 influenza pandemic — understanding past shifts can help us prepare for change now.
The origins of germ fear
It was in the late 1800’s that much of Western society began recognizing that diseases spread through micro-organisms invisible to the naked eye — the culminating achievement of European biologists like Louis Pasteur in France and Robert Koch in Germany, who advanced the germ theory of disease. In fact, that period helped shape much of America’s modern-day hygienic behaviors. The public had already understood that common diseases like cholera and typhoid could spread like wildfire through food and water contamination. “People were worried about what’s in their drinking water and how you take care of your toilet [system] so that if you had cholera, it’s not getting into the water supply,” said Nancy Tomes, a medical historian at Stony Brook University and the author of “The Gospel of Germs.”
But as scientific evidence for germ theory mounted, and public health educators launched a massive anti-tuberculosis crusade, the most casual contact came under scrutiny: People avoided handshakes, and mothers shied away from kissing their babies as doctors warned of passing tuberculosis on to their infants. Aggressive public health campaigns urged the public to practice “proper” coughing and sneezing by covering their mouth, and to ban spitting as anxiety heightened over the spread of germs through droplets.
Precautions over coughing and sneezing prevailed, as did a general disgust toward spitting. “What reinforced the gospel of germs was that they really got put into our school systems so that children were taught these principles in the 1920s and ’30s,” Tomes said. “And it becomes part of what your grandma and your aunt think, as it especially gets put onto women” — many of whom were teachers and caretakers.
Handshakes, though, never went away for good. The behavioral scientist Val Curtis at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested in her book, “Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The Science Behind Revulsion,” that the gesture may signal a degree of trust between two people to swap germs, so it may be more likely to fade in and out depending on the public health concerns.
As modern medicine lowered both the frequency and severity of disease outbreaks over the 20th century, Americans eventually eased up on those cleanliness tendencies. Even so, Tomes says there were enough reminders that when a public emergency arose, they “reactivated these germaphobic behaviors.”
That’s what happened in some Asian countries and cities when Covid-19 hit.
The Lasting Impact of SARS
Many credit at least some of Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore’s initial success in flattening the curve to their devastating experiences with the SARS outbreak in 2003. It was also caused by a disease in the family of coronaviruses, one that had much higher mortality rates —between 11% and 17% in that region — than the current Covid-19 strain.
When Covid-19 cases began emerging in Wuhan, China, citizens in those neighboring countries and cities became hyper-vigilant about not spreading or catching germs. Memories of the SARS outbreak, which lasted from March to June, have been seared into people’s minds years after the outbreak had been contained, and that’s shaped their hygienic behavior, as Nisha Gopalan, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist in Hong Kong, recounted:
I still compulsively wash my hands, 17 years after the outbreak. I have friends that have been using toothpicks to press elevator buttons for years. Some use tissues to open the doors of public washrooms, or carry spare masks in their handbags in case they catch the sniffles. This is all evidence of the indelible impact SARS has had on Hong Kong’s psyche.
And whereas some Americans are still grappling with orders to wear face masks — a result of mixed messaging from the government at the onset of the pandemic — the practice is almost instinctual in parts of Asia. In Hong Kong, it wasn’t just fear of catching Covid-19 that spurred the public to cover their faces. “This is a new social norm that has already been built up since the SARS outbreak in which the face mask was constructed as a sign of civic responsibility to prevent infecting others,” Judy Yuen-man Siu, a medical anthropologist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University who studied the shifts in public opinion toward masks in the years following the outbreak, said in an email.
Meanwhile, public health measures that were adopted then — including the rigorous tracking of cases and strict quarantine enforcement — were quickly put into place as soon as China reported a surge in Covid-19 cases in January. “The higher mortality rate associated with the infection then can leave a longer lasting impression amongst those who have lived through it,” Sim Kang, a senior consultant at the Singapore Institute of Mental Health, said in an email. “And they may be more motivated to adhere with public health measures to contain the outbreak.”
What does that all say about our post-pandemic world?
Early results from an ongoing behavioral study by University of Southern California researchers of more than 2,000 Americans suggested that 86% of people are already washing their hands more frequently because of the coronavirus. Almost two-thirds of people engaged in social distancing, like working remotely and avoiding crowded places, and more than one in five people report stockpiling food and supplies.
“We’re even seeing it in more subtle ways, that people are responding with disgust reactions or mild distress if they see other people touching their faces,” even when it’s someone on the TV screen, said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia and author of the book “The Psychology of Pandemics.” (He wasn’t involved in the USC study.) He expects prolonged germaphobic tendencies to develop in only a small handful of people, namely in those who have preexisting obsessive compulsive tendencies.
In the same vein, Tomes predicts that while people will remain hyperconscious of what they touch, and will continue to worry about being exposed to the coronavirus outside their homes, they may become more casual about their hygiene practices as the anxiety over the current Covid-19 crisis eventually fades. Back in Hong Kong, Siu recalls that it took about a month after SARS was declared over for people to relax their hygienic behavior. “If my memory is correct, most people took off their face mask in July 2003, except those who had respiratory symptoms,” she said.
But things could also play out differently as new threats emerge. Three years after SARS ended, hospital employees in Beijing reported that they still think about the epidemic, and that the high level of contagiousness and initial mortality rate continued to provoke fear of another outbreak.
“Where I think this casualness really comes to a halt is with the rise of new viral diseases,” Tomes says. Some experts are already warning the Covid-19 is a trial run for the next pandemic as sprawl continues to bring humans and wildlife — and the novel viruses animals carry — closer together.
Will social isolation change us?
In a world that frequently experiences large-scale disasters like extreme storms, mass violence, and economic downturns, dealing with collective trauma is not an unfamiliar challenge. But in the case of coronavirus, that trauma can’t be separated from social isolation. Already, a third of Americans reported experiencing high levels of psychological distress during this pandemic, including more than half of people who described their financial situation as poor, according to the Pew Research Center.
In times like these, our instinct is to find comfort in our networks of friends and family, and in our community. Research by psychology professor Roxane Cohen Silver at the University of California, Irvine, has looked at how societies reacted to traumatic situations and found that communities became closer as people sought out the company of their loved ones and their neighbors. After the 9/11 attacks, people were more likely to seek greater meaning through engagement in religious and political activities that helped boost their well-being. And inside a small Israeli town that endured seven years of constant bombing, communities that got together in tight-knit groups and supported one another through sharing of resources did best in coping with attacks, Silver said.
The cruel irony is that the infectious nature of the coronavirus has forced billions of people across the globe to stay home and cope, or even grieve, alone. That may come with its own set of consequences, which could be especially pronounced among those who have had to be put in forced isolation.
In one study, researchers found at the end of a nine-day quarantine during SARS in Taiwan, health care workers (who tested negative for the disease) were more likely than their non-quarantined colleagues to develop symptoms of stress disorders, like exhaustion, irritability, insomnia, and poor concentration. “That traumatic stress can linger even after the episode is over,” says Kang at the Singapore Institute of Mental Health.
And in a small qualitative study in Toronto, which surveyed 21 people who were quarantined during the SARS outbreak, some participants described long-term behavioral changes years after it ended: continued vigilant hand washing, for example, and crowd avoidance. Others said that they struggled to reestablish relationships because of the stigma they encountered, and that a “return to normalcy” was delayed by several months.
But it’s worth noting that these studies focus on specific groups of people who endure more extreme forms of isolation than most of the population is currently experiencing under social distancing measures. “The current situation is new, and many people are dealing with some degree of distress and anxiety, but most people are able to bounce back,” said Taylor. “Life might not be a return to what it was before, but most people are able to deal with stresses like this.”
There’s one thing that’s particularly different about our current condition of social isolation, adds Taylor: the internet. Research is limited on that front in the study of epidemics given the relatively recent rise of those technologies — but we can look to their effects on space travelers.
“These are people who are isolated for four to six months in space, and they are under the potential dangers of space and can’t go outside and take a walk easily,” says Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of the book “Humans in Space.” He spent 15 years as the principal investigator of various of NASA-funded research on the psychological hurdles of space travelers.
In one study, he looked for signs in space of what isolated Antarctic researchers call the “third quarter phenomenon” — a period of increased stress and interpersonal tension midway through a mission as explorers acknowledge that they must endure the other half before returning home.
“We did not find evidence of third quarter phenomenon in our study of the 30 astronauts and cosmonauts,” Kanas said. “Some got depressed in the third quarter and some got depressed during the first quarter as they were getting acclimated, so there was no consistent effect.” He suggests that may be because unlike the Antarctic researchers who are isolated in an area with almost no telecommunication access, space explorers are able to connect 24/7 with their families through video calls on the International Space Station. (It probably also helps that the crew goes through extensive training beforehand and has support staff who provide brain-stimulation activities as needed.)
That’s not unlike many who are currently isolating at home and experiencing quarantine fatigue. Zoom calls and social apps have virtually connected many to the outside world. Yet the reality is that that connection can’t fully replace physical touch. When the pandemic eases, it’s possible our longing for social interaction in the physical space will have us running to friends and family, but stopping short of jumping back into crowded areas as we remain hyper-vigilant about the threat of the coronavirus.
Adjusting to a new normal
Taylor is currently studying how people are coping with the various psychological impacts of Covid-19. “Pandemics are not static,” he said. ”They’re dynamic, unfolding, and changing events where people’s behavior changes over time.”
And while findings from past epidemics can give researchers like him a good place to start, they’re not exact parallels. In general, studies specifically on the long-term, society-wide impacts of pandemics are limited, according to Taylor. It was only in the last 20 years that academics began looking at the psychological aftermath of the 1918 Spanish Flu — one of the deadliest pandemics in modern history and one that often gets compared to the current crisis — and even then, he says, its similar timing to World War I complicates the findings.
Silver and her team are also in the midst of studying Covid-19, looking at the role of media and constant news consumption in amplifying the symptoms of stress. “We’re still in the eye of the storm and we’re still anticipating what might happen,” she said. “We don’t know how long this is going to last, and we don’t know how bad it’s going to get.”
But she predicts that over time, as new public health measures get phased in, people will gradually adjust to a new normal so that they can leave their homes feeling safe again. (Although the current partisan divides in the U.S. and the politicization of science is expected to muddle the transition.) That’s what happened after 9/11 completely transformed the way people fly. First people accepted that knives were no longer allowed on flights, then as new threats emerged, travelers agreed to take off their shoes during security screenings and tolerated the ban on water bottles.
“I do not believe we will ever go back to where we were on January 1, 2020,” Silver said. “But as we get further and further from that time, fewer people may remember how it was before.”
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We have heard for too long that there is no true solution to homelessness, with excuse after excuse on why we just can’t do it. Well, guess what? During this pandemic — in many places — homelessness reforms that were long deemed implausible are happening, if only temporarily.
Over the last two months, cities have been showing just what it takes to expand capacity and safely house the homeless.
Winter shelters have remained opened, public property has been converted to shelters, housing navigation teams have expanded, more public-private partnerships have been established, hygiene and sanitation services have increased, and eviction moratoriums have been put into place. It is fitting that such an all-hands-on-deck response would come during a global pandemic, especially as Covid-19 can spread rapidly when people live in close quarters in shelters or on the streets. But for so many people sleeping rough on the streets of America, they face a crisis every day.
We need to explore which of these actions have been effective so we can make progress on permanent solutions to homelessness. This crisis has exposed the inextricable relationship between housing and health, and that connection will remain important long after lockdowns lift.
First and foremost, racial equity can no longer be optional: It must be an imperative. Covid-19 shines an even brighter light on the disparities in health and medical care for African Americans. Prior to the pandemic, communities of color were disproportionately represented in the homeless population. African Americans are 13% of the population, but represent more than 40% of the homeless, and America’s Latinx population represents 22% of the homeless versus 18% of the country. None of this information is new, and neither is institutional and structural racism.
Historically, housing has been riddled with remnants of redlining, racialized covenants, displacements and predatory inclusion. For policymakers to equitably assist individuals and families experiencing homelessness, embedding racial equity into housing policy cannot be seen as optional.
At the onset of this crisis, Minneapolis’ city council passed a resolution to put a racial equity lens on the city’s response and mitigation efforts to Covid-19. Initiatives that have come out of this approach include an Emergency Mental Health Fund, which provides resources to communities affected by coronavirus trauma, and a program for residents to observe Ramadan while maintaining social distancing. Other cities have created special coronavirus task forces focused on equity and racial disparities, including New York City and Oakland, in conjunction with regional leaders.
Second, we must recognize the link between housing and health in our policymaking. Safe, affordable housing — and conditions in neighborhoods surrounding a house — influence the health of individuals and families. It is because of this inextricable connection that we have historically seen major housing policy reform grow out of health crises.
Over the last two months, cities that recognize this relationship have secured housing for the homeless by procuring shelters, hotels, trailers and college dormitories. Baltimore provided hotel and motel vouchers. Chicago and Detroit added shelter capacity by partnering with local community-based organizations. Sacramento received RV-style trailers from California. If space has not been available, cities have been deploying hygiene stations in encampments and continuing to grant access to public restrooms.
Cities have also stepped up with policies to prevent new homelessness. In April, San Antonio, Charlotte and Boston created rental relief programs. Dallas, San Jose and Los Angeles developed ordinances preventing evictions during the pandemic. San Diego has not only provided shelters, but it is providing incentives to landlords who rent their units to homeless individuals.
Regional approaches have also taken center stage, providing and stretching resources for cities to do their job. In Washington, Seattle and King County worked together to expand homelessness services, and in Oregon, Portland and Multnomah County are doing the same. These regional approaches have seen an increased share of shelters, beds, hygiene stations, and motel vouchers made available to individuals experiencing homelessness.
After the crisis, regionalism should continue to be a source of strength in homelessness policies. State and federal officials have also been critical allies during this time, and this must continue.
California has been a leader. In April, Governor Gavin Newsom launched Project Roomkey, an initiative to secure 15,000 hotel and motel rooms to house the homeless and protect them from Covid-19 spread. An unprecedented initiative funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Project Roomkey provides local governments with an up to 75% cost-share reimbursement for rooms, and this includes wraparound services such as health care. In Massachusetts, the state has established isolation and recovery sites, supported families in need of emergency assistance in domestic violence shelters, and provided additional funding to ensure individuals and families experiencing homelessness are protected and housed.
At the federal level, there is always more that can be done, but the CARES Act gave local and state governments $5 billion dollars in Community Development Block Grants and $4 billion in Homeless Assistance Grants. As a result, local governments — in the short term — have been able to increase support for individuals and families experiencing homelessness through emergency rent payments, rapid re-housing, homelessness prevention, and shelter operations.
The National League of Cities campaign “Cities are Essential” is calling for $500 billion in direct support to cities of all sizes over these next two years to make sure we can support the people who live in our cities, including our homeless residents. City leaders are on the front lines of the response to this pandemic and there is an urgent need to provide necessary support to cities — currently facing an unprecedented fiscal cliff — and to the more than 200 million Americans, both housed and unhoused, who are our friends, family, and neighbors.
This crisis has made it mandatory for cities to find safe and quality housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. As cities begin to reopen, they will need a continued strong partnership with federal and state governments to create sustainable pathways for the homeless to become permanently housed. While the pandemic will recede, it has made clearer what has been true all along: We are all in this together, and we are all better off when people have a place to call home.
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Supersonic planes screamed across the skies of Texas on May 6 in a display meant to buck up front-line workers who bear the greatest risk from coronavirus. Ten jets flying in perfect formation streaked over Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, with an afternoon pass over New Orleans, giving the beleaguered workers and residents below a moment’s reprieve from the pandemic’s ongoing onslaught.
The Pentagon recently launched this “collaborative salute” from the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration squads for the Navy and the Air Force. The two-week-long series of flyovers, dubbed “Operation America Strong,” is being billed as a morale-booster for front-line workers like the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who cheered in their PPE as the jets thundered over Baltimore on Saturday. Another wave of military aircraft demos with a similarly chunky name is now in progress — “Operation American Resolve” — featuring fly-bys from Ohio to Oregon.
Worldwide, these flyover exhibitions have already become a staple of the pandemic lockdowns. Back in March, a video of a 2019 aerial display by the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori team (scored to Puccini, no less) went viral, and the squad has since flown over a shuttered Rome to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Italy’s liberation from fascism in April. Aerobatic teams in India and Canada have performed aerial salutes, too.
What makes these displays so riveting — or at least, what has national and military leaders so convinced they are? In the era of coronavirus, the best entertainment going is not a sourdough starter or a set by DJ D-Nice or takeout from the local izakaya. It’s a public spectacle: a shared activity, a communal not-quite-gathering. And for the part of the world taunted by the arrival of spring, a flyover offers a way to be outdoors together while apart. Right now, a safe public spectacle only comes courtesy of these elite squadrons of fighter jet pilots.
It’s a stunt appropriate for social distancing, since there’s no screen or stage to crowd or rush toward. Those under the flightpath only need to look up. On another level, the flyovers also serve as a reassuring reminder of the power of human ingenuity. A pilot flying an F/A–18 Hornet at speeds nearing Mach 1 is bending the curve of sound. Surely a species that can master aviation can accept the science of staying home!
Not every spirit, however, has been lifted by these sights and sounds. Streetsblog NYC described the New York flyover as “anxiety and pollution wrapped up in the flag.” Others dismiss the displays as jingoistic, empty gestures by a federal government whose response to the viral threat has otherwise been disastrous; indeed, President Donald Trump wasted little time dropping a clip of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds arcing over Washington into a campaign ad praising his administration’s handling of the pandemic. Above all, critics complained that the lofty costs involved with mustering jet squadrons — at least $60,000 per hour — are an unjustifiable diversion of funds at a time when government dollars are desperately needed for just about everything else.
All of which might be true — except for the part about costs. Pilots need flight hours to stay qualified in their jets, and that includes the active-duty Naval and Marine aviators who make up the Blue Angels as well as the Air Force pilots behind the Thunderbirds’ F-16 Fighting Falcons. The costs of aviation displays and hospital equipment aren’t mutually exclusive, and the flyovers are already paid for. As Stinger says in Top Gun, “You don’t own that plane! The taxpayers do!”
Of course, with Covid-19 case counts and deaths steady at a high plateau (and climbing alarmingly outside of major cities), many Americans are in no mood for a celebratory demonstration of any kind. According to polls, most in the U.S. disapprove of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, and state leaders have gone to drastic resorts to secure life-saving medical gear on their own. As Jonathan Capehart writes in The Washington Post, the day after the Pentagon announced its first flyover for New York, Trump suggested that coronavirus could be cured by injecting disinfectants into the body. It’s understandable why so many people might find the “Mission Accomplished” vibe of federally-funded aerial theatrics distasteful right now.
Yet even a stressed-out public still needs to find ways to come together while we are apart. And jet planes are freaking awesome! Flyovers are incredible feats. Before engaging in jet-scolding, go ask any child if they are cool. It was heartwarming to see health care workers taking a minute off to get the ‘gram.
Watching the amazing Navy Blue Angels fly over Harris County from the roof of Transtar today. Thank you to all of our healthcare workers, first responders, military and everyone on the front lines of the fight against #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/nAM1EBUXpt
— Lina Hidalgo (@LinaHidalgoTX) May 6, 2020
Having witnessed this spectacle first-hand when the squad flew over Washington, D.C., on May 2, I can confirm that fighter jets still own. I caught the Blue Angels’ first pass while I was on my bicycle, and the sight of jets soaring over the National Gallery of Art frankly took my breath away.
Too many people love the Blue Angels, it turns out. Appreciative fans in the District did the one thing that local leaders asked them not to do: Crowds gathered on the National Mall for the best views. When I biked to the Mall to see if the public demonstration would turn into a public menace, two friends who rode with me bailed at the sight of so many people. Photos of the crowds were a little misleading: Most of the households and families who gathered were standing more than six feet apart from one another’s camps. Still, plenty of people couldn’t be bothered to wear face masks, and when it came time to leave, social distancing turned into an ordeal on downtown sidewalks.
It would be a horrible irony if a demonstration meant to honor front-line workers instead turned out to be a super-spreader event. Yet it would also be characteristic of the U.S. response to the pandemic for Americans to ignore the safety precautions urged by medical experts. The hope is that this risk is unlikely, based on what little we know about outdoor versus indoor transmission. The scene on the Mall notwithstanding, displays of aeronautical finesse by the Blue Angels might be the safest excuse to go outside and join others in a shared experience. It’s the Blue Angels or Animal Crossing.
Summer is nearly here. Will Americans be able to gather for cookouts on Memorial Day or fireworks on the Fourth of July anywhere? Will anyone want to? Based on how these flyovers have been received, jubilant displays of earnest patriotism could have a fraught place in the pandemic, a war that America appears to be conspicuously losing. A flock of F-16s can’t do much to defeat a virus, and such scenes might feel too partisan for those who fret that conservatives have already hijacked the flag and the national anthem. National symbols belong to all of Americans, though, and public spectacles — like fireworks and fighter jets — are performances that reinforce what those they mean. The public part matters, even when we’re failing, and maybe especially then.
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Since our founding over 24 years ago, KABOOM! has worked hand-in-hand with communities to build incredible, kid-designed playspaces that help give kids in every zip code the opportunity to thrive. Right now, we’re in a scenario we never could have imagined: supporting public health recommendations that playgrounds remain closed.
The challenge of COVID-19 is tremendous, but it also presents an opportunity for the nation to rally around an urgent need: investing in the infrastructure of childhood. We believe that through deep partnerships with communities and a range of public, private, and philanthropic partners, we can achieve what we call playspace equity. Simply put, this means a world in which every kid has access to quality playspaces regardless of factors like race, ethnicity, income, or zip code.
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This interview is adapted from the latest edition of MapLab, CityLab’s biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape our urban spaces. Sign up for the newsletter here.
The 5.5 million-plus maps at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. are so many windows into history. With items from the 13th century to the modern day, the world’s largest repository of geospatial data is always growing, with its keepers on constant lookout for new additions.
Lately those librarians have had their hands full. John Hessler, a specialist in modern cartography and GIS at the Library of Congress, is collecting the maps of the coronavirus pandemic. In a public health crisis where the interpretation of data, maps and other visualizations has been critical, Hessler’s job (at least part of it) is to ensure that future historians and lawmakers can access that data, and see how mapmaking itself advanced, as they try and grasp this moment in time.
I spoke to Hessler over the phone; our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Being a map librarian must come with its challenges even under normal conditions, considering the volume of digital maps out there these days. What’s it like?
The field has just exploded. It used to be that mapping was the exclusive subject area of governments and some private companies that published maps, which means that the maps we collected were limited but generally more accurate. Now a lot of amazing cartography is coming from people sitting in their offices, cafés, and at home, visualizing geospatial data in ways that early cartographers couldn’t have imagined. Sometimes maps come out that just blow you away, like this wind map. It was just the perfect symbol of what cartography has become now: using geospatial data to visualize the world in a dynamic way.
That’s the other thing that has changed. We used to collect maps or 3D models that were static, easy to reach out and grab. But now we often gather data as opposed to the map itself, as mapmakers look at more dynamic phenomena, whether it’s storms or Covid-19 or the processes of urban change. Those maps make people like me so excited about where we are and where we’re going. But also it’s harder for us to keep track of who is doing what and how to preserve it.
How do you preserve the dynamic maps coming out of the pandemic, while it’s still unfolding? I’m thinking about the maps changing hour-by-hour from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which are a go-to for many people right now.
It’s not easy. It kind of comes down to what’s available and what you can grab. Right now, I am making lists, reaching out to people who are involved in the pandemic mapping as we speak, and capturing things that are of great interest, like some of the phylogenetic mapping of the disease that’s going on. That is really new and fascinating but still fits into the tradition of disease and epidemic mapping that started in the 19th century.
Some of it also reflects the cultural experience of the pandemic, like some of the social media mapping that’s going on: People are using machine learning to map where certain misinformation is coming from based on tweets, as well as sentiments about lockdowns. We’ve come so far in deep learning tools, and the maps coming out of this disaster really show that.
One of the defining features of this pandemic is the tremendous uncertainty about the future and the lack of clear data to tell us for sure where things are headed. How have you seen that reflected in maps? Have maps misguided us at times? How have they played into the emotional experience?
What you’re asking really goes to the power of maps: What a map does is take a complex situation, abstracts it from the reality on ground and presents a simple image to help people try and understand what’s happening. And like any produced tool, maps have particular ways of placing ideologies, conscious or subconscious. That can include what color they chose: for example, those Johns Hopkins maps use gigantic red dots on a black background, which from a design perspective just explodes off the page. There are also a couple mapping places that have been giving grades on how well places are doing social distancing. So if you see a county with an explosion of color and a D minus, that might freak people out because you’re only looking at this image that’s aggregated and the people who made it decided on what’s good and bad, without much context about what came before.
Have members of Congress been requesting maps or assistance from you recently?
There have been requests, but I can’t say what because there is confidentiality about anything that’s being borrowed. A library just doesn’t say what particular people have pulled. The Congressional Research Service has its own GIS and mapping group, and they’ve been very busy with this sort of work.
I’m just amazed at the sheer volume of geospatial images. It’s really an historic mapping moment like no other I remember.
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