Could our temporary COVID habits become permanent?


On the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal, Annie Gasparro and Sharon Terlep report that some of America’s biggest companies are betting that habits developed since the pandemic started in March will continue into 2021:

Millions of Americans spent much of the year working from home. While legions of employers are planning to reopen their offices, many have said they would let employees continue working remotely some or all of the time once the pandemic subsides.

As a result, many food-and-consumer-products companies are investing in factories, equipment and brands to provide more of those items for years to come, seeking to accommodate consumers who are making more coffee, buying more casual clothes and tending beards with trimmers and balm rather than shaving them off.

…The pandemic has lasted so long that people have formed new habits and bought equipment to help them work from home for years, said Bob Nolan, Conagra’s head of consumer insights and data. “This gives us confidence that this isn’t just a flash in the pan,” he said.

Employers may make a lot of those decisions for some Americans; if a company’s office isn’t reopened, then no, those sales of office toilet paper and office coffee will never rebound to the previous levels. But I think that a lot of Americans are itching to get back to “normal” — particularly for the industries that have largely gone dormant during the pandemic. (This weekend, Jason Gay wrote a funny column about all of the annoyances of business travel that he’s started to miss.) Right now, there’s a lot of pent-up demand to eat out in a popular and crowded restaurant, go to the movies, travel, get on a plane, attend sports events and concerts and live performances, hold festivals and conferences, etc.

According to Bloomberg’s frequently-updated tracker, 1.94 million Americans have been vaccinated so far. The Oxford vaccine is expected to be approved in the United Kingdom tomorrow, and Johnson & Johnson will have results from its trial “in January,” meaning perhaps as early as next week. Novavax announced today it’s starting a large-scale Stage 3 trial. According to the company, the earlier-stage trials demonstrated “that the vaccine provoked a robust immune response, generated highly neutralizing antibodies against the virus and was generally well-tolerated.” By spring, Americans could have up to five options for vaccination.

If you’ve fallen in love with macaroni and cheese this year, that’s fine. But I suspect a lot of businesses will be itching to get back to work — and to start taking those “Three Martini Lunch” tax deductions for business expenses. Restaurants and bars, and all of their employees, eagerly wait the return of those customers.

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