Not every social change created by big, world-altering events winds up being big and world-altering.
Think about it. The Sept. 11 attacks forced Americans to rethink important things like security and privacy and freedom – and to stop packing big shampoo bottles in our carry-ons.
So it makes sense that today, about two years after California launched pandemic shutdowns and disease-related health routines – and the first of 970,000 Americans died – we’re collectively reinventing a world that’s shifted in ways big and small.
For example, do we like each other as much as before? Sadly, polling and hate crime data say we don’t, at least in the abstract. But other polling suggests the same pandemic that inspired so many rage tweets and meltdown videos also helped make a lot of marriages stronger.
Are we going back to work? We are (unemployment today is about the same as it was a month before the pandemic), but a lot of that work is happening on kitchen tables or coffee house WiFi. Many of us aren’t going back to office cubicles anytime soon.
Are sweatpants still a thing? Quarantine beards? Golf? No, kinda and yes; those three pandemic trends seem to be at different stages of playing out.
While the threat of COVID-19 isn’t over (federal data shows about 1,200 Americans a day are dying of a disease that’s supposedly on the wane, and case numbers are rising again in parts of Asia and Europe) here’s a look at some of the trends that won and lost during the pandemic, and how they might shape our lives going forward.
“I’ve always loved my wife, so it’s a weird way to think about it. But, yeah, all the COVID stuff probably made us closer,” said Roger Cortes-Jones, a retiree who, with wife Cora, recently moved from Riverside to San Diego County.
“With all that time together, you either love each other more or get a divorce,” he added, laughing. “We’re definitely still together.”
Twenty-five months ago Cortes-Jones, now 78, was still working part-time for a relative’s supermarket. But he suffers from asthma and, when the pandemic kicked in, the couple opted to shift into full-time retirement and stay inside as much as possible. Over the next two years, they spent virtually every day together, either in a small condominium or on increasingly long walks around the neighborhood, seeing friends, grandchildren and other relatives only via computer or talking over the phone.
They recently began venturing out and are enjoying seeing the world again, and Cortes-Jones said he and his wife spend more time together now than they did before the pandemic. He added that if they hadn’t had each other during the health crisis they both would have been “(expletive) lonely.”
Their experience isn’t unusual. In late 2020, more than half (56%) of married people tracked in the federal American Family Survey said the pandemic made them “appreciate their spouse more” and roughly half of all respondents said the pandemic “increased their marriage commitment.”
“I’m not sure what that one means,” Cortes-Jones said, when asked about marriage commitment. “But, sure, count me as committed.”
That isn’t to say hunkering down with a spouse was universally stress-free. Polling found that many people who lost income during the past two years found it tougher to be with their partners.
That said, American Family Survey researchers wrote in their summary that having a spouse to hang with generally made the past two years easier to handle: “On balance, the news about marriage in the time of COVID is better than expected.”
Those good vibes might extend to other family members. A study from the University of Rochester suggested that people who shared pandemic time with children – as stressful as that often was – fared better than people who did not.
While the pandemic helped (some) marriages, two years of physical distancing might’ve put a crimp in romance or, if not romance, in the number of people who say they are in a romantic relationship.
But data shows relationships were fizzling before the pandemic and the health crisis simply accelerated things.
In 2020, 37% of Americans told the American Family Survey they were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a jump from the 34% who said that in 2019, and the 30% who said they were unattached in 2015. That trend line suggests more people might choose to live solo even when we reach whatever we call “normal” post-pandemic.
But, in the eyes of at least one prospective dater, that’s bunk.
“People will get back into relationships, in real life, now that they can,” said Kelly Schmidt, 25, of Culver City, who said she broke up with a “kinda long-term” boyfriend a couple months before the pandemic kicked in.
“I have some friends I follow online, and that was probably a bigger deal when we couldn’t go out and stuff. But I’ve been going out for a while now. And dating (in real life) is better.
“I can’t imagine everybody is going to stay single because there was a pandemic,” she added. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Last year, as a record number of cinemas closed, our collective TV viewing reached the point that more than 1 in 4 Americans (28%) told pollsters that they’d watched so much TV that the act of watching television left them fatigued. That’s a lot of TV.
“It got to where I’d watch (bad) shows just because I was sick of watching so many good ones, if that makes any sense,” said Schmidt, who briefly worked as a talent agent’s assistant before taking a job in social media marketing.
“I used to read a lot,” she added. “But there was something about the pandemic, or whatever, that made streaming (TV) seem like the thing to do.”
Sitting in the dark and watching a film, and sharing that experience with a crowd of strangers who’ve paid to do the same thing, has been a staple of American life for more than a century.
The pandemic might’ve fundamentally changed that. But, again, it’s also possible the recent lockdowns just goosed a trend that’s been in the works for a while.
Last year, 61% of Americans said they didn’t go to a movie theater at all. That’s more than double the number who said the same thing earlier in the century, according to survey data released earlier this year by Gallup polling.
While the pandemic, no doubt, pushed a lot of people away from cinemas, that doesn’t explain the longer decline. Last year’s hearty movie fans – people who were willing or reckless enough to ignore health recommendations to attend an old-school, sitting-in-the-dark cinema experience – didn’t see nearly as many movies as their counterparts from previous eras. The average moviegoer watched just 1.4 films in theaters in 2021, down from 4.8 films they averaged, per year, from 2001 to 2007, according to Gallup.
“I love movies. And when we couldn’t go out, at all, I streamed a lot of movies,” said Jason Chin, an engineering student at UC Irvine, outside a cinema near the campus.
“And I even went to a couple of movies as soon as the theaters opened last year,” he added.
But, post-pandemic, Chin predicted he’ll be more particular about what movies he sees in a theater versus the ones he’ll watch on his couch.
“I don’t know if it’s the pandemic as much as tech that’s hurting the industry,” said Chin, who said he’d like to work for Amazon or another video streaming company when he graduates.
“I can see great movies at my apartment, on a pretty big screen. And it’s fine,” he said.
“I know because I just spent a year, or I guess two, doing that.”
How drunk were we during the worst of the lockdowns?
It’s unclear. Some data suggests binge alcohol consumption jumped by 21% in the first year of the pandemic, an increase so big it warrants skepticism. But whether that was or wasn’t accurate, a recap of how we talked about pandemic drinking over the past two years suggests we were into booze.
First, in the early weeks of lockdowns, pandemic drinking was a collective joke. Twitter and Facebook were filled with daily pictures and anecdotes about happy hour starting shortly after lunch, or breakfast, and recipe suggestions for our nightly cocktail(s).
By the end of the first year, in the spring of 2021, pandemic-era drinking was the grist of countless cautionary articles about “America’s drinking problem,” quoting lots of alcohol industry data about our collective love of Big Gulp-sized margaritas and such.
Now, pandemic drinking has reached the scientific prediction stage of its cycle.
In January, the journal Hepatology published research from Harvard that estimates how pandemic drinking will hurt public health over time. Researchers predict that the jump in alcohol consumption during the first year of the pandemic will lead to 1,000 extra cases of liver cancer, 8,700 added cases of liver failure and 8,000 extra deaths by 2040.
That’s a lot of drinking.
Sure, this falls under the “loser” category, but less smoking is a win for anybody who doesn’t sell tobacco for a living. And the data is clear: Consumption of tobacco in all forms – smoking, vaping, chewing, cigar-chomping, etc. – fell during 2020, according to a report issued Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control.
The report found cigarette use, in particular, has fallen to a recent all-time low; just 1 in 8 Americans smoked during the first year of the pandemic. Likewise, the survey of 31,000 people found that 19% of Americans used any form of tobacco product in 2020, a significant drop from the 21% who smoked, chewed or vaped in 2019.
The decline has been in the works for a while. In the mid-1960s, the CDC reported that 42% of U.S. adults were smokers.
But the pandemic created a particular buzz-kill scenario for tobacco. Pandemic parents spent more time in a house with kids, potentially limiting their opportunity to smoke or vape. Likewise, most teenagers couldn’t vape as much when they were surrounded by their parents.
What’s more, the CDC report suggests that basic human anatomy – any form of smoking hurts lungs and respiratory systems, which are targeted by COVID-19 – played a role in the decline.
Loser: Office work
It’s tricky to say that office work – or, specifically, working in a space traditionally described as an “office” – is going away. Work areas change with technology, economics and the nature of the work being done.
But data does show that the pandemic crushed short-term demand for offices, particularly in big cities. A study by the real estate marketing agency Avison Young found demand for office leases in the Los Angeles market dropped by 38.5% during 2020 and ’21 when compared with the previous 20 years. Obviously, that’s a huge decline, but similar reports were common around the country. It seemed that everybody from entertainment workers to tech coders to government lawyers has been sent out of offices to toil at home.
Will it continue?
Unclear. Some downtowns are already evolving in a way that suggests office space won’t be nearly as important in the future as it has been in the recent past. In New York, for example, several projects are underway to turn office spaces into apartments.
But some companies that might seem to be candidates for permanent work-from-home employment aren’t. They argue that workers should be face-to-face – and idea-to-idea – with each other as soon as health rules allow. Earlier this month Google, for example, told its employees they should return to the office in early April.
“I think I miss the office when I think of my friends there,” said Allison Covarrubias, a Diamond Bar resident who works – or, rather, used to work – in Irvine.
“But then I think of my friends there. And I don’t miss it as much,” she added, laughing.
“For the record, I’m mostly kidding. I actually do miss my co-workers,” she said. “If we go back to working like we used to, I’ll be happy.”
A story circulated on fashion websites in mid-2020 a few months into the lockdown and a time when big fashion was taking its worst beating in a century, that Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, had shown up in an Instagram video dressed in …
Those posts weren’t dissing Wintour’s choice of “running slacks,” they were applauding it. In a world bereft of fashion, sweatpants were pandemic chic.
In April 2020, the New York Times reported that while clothing sales overall had fallen by 79%, sales of sweatpants were up 80%. A few months later, the New York Times magazine ran a cover story under the title “Sweatpants Forever.”
Too bad for sweatpant makers that fashion is … fashion. By the beginning of this year, sweatpant makers were going out of business and fashionistas were predicting the no-frill ethos of sweatpants is already being supplanted by the excess-is-just-a-starting-point ideas of bows, robes, bright colors and possibly hats.
As designer Bradley Sharpe told W magazine earlier this year: “I just can’t think small. …The bigger a piece is, the more respect you have for it.”
Still, that kind of thinking might not fly at Target.
“I don’t care if they’re not fashionable or whatever,” said Schmidt, of Culver City. “I’m keeping my sweats.”
Winner: Quarantine beards
It’s understood that they feel like Brillo. It’s understood that they don’t always smell great. It’s understood that the ZZ Top guys weren’t sex symbols, at least at first.
It’s also understood that a lot of people grew some version of a beard during the pandemic. Reliable data on beard growth isn’t, you know, kept, but an October 2020 press release from a maker of beard-trimming devices, Wahl Inc., claimed 40% of men ages 18 to 64 took a crack at beard cultivation during the pandemic.
Many signs suggest that was a lowball guess.
On social media, in movies and TV, on newscasts, in every walk of public life, super long facial hair became a standard. Jim Carrey, a long-time beard lover, used social media to turn beard growth into a sort of performance art.
And it’s been true in real life, too. Any trip to a park or, as the pandemic eased, a bar or restaurant, found that beards had made the leap from pretty common pre-pandemic to ubiquitous in its aftermath.
Will they stay? It’s unclear. This much is known: Super long beards take a lot of time to grow and any decision about keeping, trimming or eradicating them should not be made in haste.
It’s expensive when money is tight. It requires patience in an era of almost pathological impatience. It’s elitist.
Still, golf has been red hot during the pandemic.
After several years of not-so-slow decline, the National Golf Federation reported that Americans played about 60 million more rounds of golf in 2020 than they played the year before. Given most courses were shut down for several months of 2020, the half-year jolt was an explosion the sport hadn’t seen since the late 1990s when young Tiger Woods made golf a fad. And the boom held through 2021, when golf grew again by about 5%, with more young players and women of all ages taking up the game.
A couple things drove this. When lockdown rules eased, in the spring of 2020, CDC officials publicly suggested golf as a relatively safe way to get in some exercise – provided players wore a mask while golfing, didn’t share a cart and didn’t touch golf flags or the rakes inside sand traps.
Also, golf requires you to be outdoors, usually for a few hours. For people who’d been cooped up indoors for several weeks, outdoors apparently had some appeal.
“I hate it. Love it. Hate it. Love it. You get the idea. It’s golf,” said Jay Choudhury, 40, as he practiced at an Irvine driving range.
Choudhury took up the game after he inherited some clubs from an uncle, who died a few weeks after the pandemic kicked in.
The clubs, he said, seemed to invite him out.
“We’d been in the house for so long,” he said. “The first time, I just took (the clubs) to the driving range.”
He said he played about twice a month in 2020, took some lessons last year, and now plays about once a week. He typically shoots between 85 and 95.
His wife plays, too, though they rarely play together.
As Choudhury explained all this, he practiced off a tee, mixing slices with the occasional long, arcing drive.
“It’s addictive,” he said.
What kind of golfer was his uncle?
“Probably not great, but he was a nice guy,” Choudhury said.
“He died of COVID,” he added. “You should put that in your story.”