How will COVID-19 reshape the city?

Two years ago, on the centennial of the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, the deadliest pandemic in history, David Staley wrote an article imagining what a similar global health crisis might look like today. The Ohio State University historian and futurist envisioned quarantined cities, travel restrictions, closed schools (supplemented with online learning), increased telecommuting and conflicting political and cultural forces. 

“Would our nation come together to meet the challenge?” wondered Staley in his article, published on the Columbus Underground website. “Or would today’s fractious political environment exacerbate the epidemiological threat, with each side blaming the other, with one side seeking action from government authorities while the other descends into a ‘pandemic survivalist’ mode?”

Now, with those scenarios playing out in real time as the COVID-19 epidemic grips Columbus and the rest of the world, Staley and many others in the city are going through a new exercise. They’re exploring how the crisis could change Central Ohio in the long term—and the ramifications could be profound, affecting health care, politics, culture and technology. With its mounting death tolls, grim economic statistics and extreme social-distancing measures, this period could reshape society just as the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks did before it. “It’s interesting to think about this moment in time,” says Alex Fischer, the CEO of the Columbus Partnership, the city’s most powerful civic organization. “It’s unprecedented in our lifetime. I think history will show that it’s a defining moment.”

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Many see this period as reinforcing technological trends already underway. Staley says society has been moving toward what he calls “the new mobility”—bringing “the world to me rather than move me in the world,” as exemplified by Amazon shopping, Uber Eats and Peloton exercise bikes. With schools closed, offices shut down and a stay-at-home order in place through May 1 (as of press time), many Columbus residents have been forced to embrace this way of living even more, via videoconferencing, online classes, telemedicine and other forms of modern communication. “I wonder how much of this pattern is going to linger after the COVID-19 crisis has calmed,” Staley says.

Fischer says most members of the Columbus Partnership, which includes almost all of the city’s largest and most important companies and institutions, were early adopters of working from home. After the pandemic ends, Fischer expects those companies to reevaluate their workplaces, perhaps allowing more employees to continue to work remotely, as well as change other practices, such as travel expenses. “It’ll just be a real practical question,” Fischer says. “Do we need to spend that money when we’ve all learned how to do Zoom and WebEx and all the other technologies that are out there?” Adds Don DePerro, the head of the Columbus Chamber: “What I think this may do is give many of us, especially veteran managers, a higher level of comfort that we can trust that work is still getting done even if people aren’t seeing each other.”

Extraordinary circumstances have made unfathomable ideas fathomable. The federal government was expected to send out $1,200 checks to citizens beginning in April to boost the economy, a stimulus that sounds suspiciously like the “freedom dividend” advocated by former fringe Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Meanwhile, the Central Ohio Transit Authority has suspended bus fares, an idea that civic and public leaders have long rejected despite the pleadings of a small but vocal group led by Columbus developer and former COTA board member Bob Weiler. The fare elimination, done for safety reasons rather than economic ones, is temporary, but Weiler predicts it will be difficult for COTA to go back once the epidemic ends. “It’s easier to give somebody something than to take it away,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest unresolved question is a cultural one: Will this moment divide or bring us together? Staley sees both encouraging and troubling signs: wise leaders rallying communities against a common health threat and inspiring a community-minded spirit of sacrifice and good deeds, while others denounce the epidemic as a hoax and ignore the scientific consensus. “It’s possible that this crisis levels us, that it will dampen some of the vicious polarization that we’ve been experiencing,” Staley says. “It’s also possible that it will increase the polarization, fueling or accelerating what the country already is feeling.”

For a younger generation, it could ingrain ideas and practices that last a lifetime, like the frugality of those who lived through the Great Depression and the skepticism and individualism of the baby boomers influenced by the Vietnam War. Staley says sacrifice, altruism and respect for science could manifest as long-lasting habits and ideals for this new generation—as could scapegoating, isolationism and distrust of others if things go in another direction. “I hope I’m wrong about that,” Staley says of the latter possibility. “I really hope I’m wrong.”

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