New York – At some point the risk from COVID-19 will recede but not disappear. What might America then be like? The largest cities in the country, and New York City in particular, will remain vital, but their futures will be clouded by serious health and economic issues.
Most of all, there will be an exodus of elderly residents. New York City will become even more the province of young people, assuming the role that Berlin has long played in Germany. That will be good for the city’s long-run vitality.
Rents and land prices are likely to fall. This is not necessarily because of a high number of deaths, a ghoulish and difficult detail to predict. Nonetheless many businesses will think twice about locating their headquarters in New York City, if only because senior managers tend to be relatively old. The net effect will be to make the city less attractive for businesses but more affordable for residents, most of all young people. It will be more like the New York of the 1970s and 1980s, with fear of infection replacing the fear of crime.
For sure, it will be a much poorer New York. This is bad on its own terms, of course, and worse when considering the lower tax revenue it will bring and the second-order effects on school quality and pension plans. Still, as recompense there will be more regional development in the rest of the United States, as locales such as Memphis, Tennessee, and Charlotte, North Carolina, attract more business interest.
New York City is also likely to develop the strictest norms for mask-wearing, “test and trace” and other measures to limit the spread of the virus. Combined with the benefits from social distancing, that will eventually make the city visitable once again. Still, subway ridership is likely to remain lower. Residents will look even more to their neighborhoods and neighborhood shops. The city may have less retail overall, but New York has made these adjustments in the past and can do so again. If you dislike the “chaining” of so much of Manhattan, you might even find some upside in this development.
The residual danger of some commutes is likely to attract even more young, low-wage immigrants into the city. Such immigrants are overrepresented in many of America’s most dangerous jobs, such as working on fishing boats. Risk-seeking migrants have long been common in New York, from the first decades of the 20th century to more recently, and they will become even more so.
That demographic shift will have pluses and minuses. But it is an adjustment that New York will be able to make, and again it will mean a kind of return to the city’s historical roots.
If COVID-19 survivors have immunity, as is the case with many viruses, the city’s social life may become very segregated. Survivors will have time-stamped immunity certificates and lead relatively active social lives. Those who have not had the virus will be far more Puritan — spending more time online, refusing to shake hands, biking rather than taking the subway. Different bars and even different parts of town will have reputations as better for one group or the other.
This kind of segregation is not an especially appealing prospect. Yet New York City, with its incredible choice and diversity, will be better suited to deal with it than will rural or suburban America. Of course, if you haven’t been infected yet, and cannot prove immunity and get into the safe clubs and bars, you will be all the more scared to visit the riskier outlets available to you.
In fact many people, especially the young, may actually expose themselves to the virus deliberately, to join what is ostensibly the more fun-seeking crowd. Maybe there will be bars and parties for people in the “actively infected” phase. I shudder to think about the casualties, but it will probably be a safer experience than it is at the moment.
So far suburban America has had a clear advantage when dealing with COVID-19. But as the country recovers from the very worst, New York and other major cities will adjust and recover some of their natural advantages.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor of economics at George Mason University.