This is a column by City Talk’s Bill Dawers, a longtime contributor to the Savannah Morning News.
With the pandemic’s brutal third wave receding and vaccinations continuing, daily life and commerce could feel a lot more normal by late spring.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Georgia has been steadily declining since around Jan. 10. The Georgia Department of Public Health is still reporting more than 2,000 new cases each day, but the downward trend is clear.
The seven-day moving average of deaths in the state has been falling since peaking at more than 100 in mid-January. Deaths lag cases, of course, so reports of new deaths could remain high for several more weeks.
As I write this column, the number of COVID-19 patients in Georgia hospitals stands at more than 2,500, but that’s down from 5,700 hospitalized patients in mid-January.
Assuming that vaccinations accelerate and that most people continue to take commonsense precautions, the numbers should continue to decline.
The improvements in public health will be good news for the Savannah metro area’s economy, especially the leisure and hospitality sector, which lost more than 5,000 payroll jobs in 2020, according to estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor.
But those payroll job losses don’t capture the full scope of the pandemic’s impact on restaurants, bars, hotels, museums and other employers. Many workers lost hours and tips. Independent contractors got hammered.
And many small business owners saw lower profits in 2020, if they made money at all.
The speed of the economic recovery is contingent on the arc of the pandemic. If new cases continue to decline and if vaccines reduce the severity of illness, we should see relatively rapid gains.
Many employers are slow to fire workers when the economy tanks and also slow to make new hires as conditions improve, but a surge in spring business could result in relatively fast expansion of payrolls at restaurants and other service sector establishments that are already accustomed to high employee turnover.
Pent-up demand for leisure travel should buoy tourism in the coming months, but some folks will remain cautious about their modes of transportation, their choices of accommodations and their diversions while on holiday.
More visitors than usual will stick with outdoor activities. Tybee Island could have a banner year, and restaurants with outdoor tables should benefit even more than they have in recent months.
Business travel and conventions will likely rebound more slowly. Companies and other organizations will be reluctant to make plans as long as there are so many risks. Some might embrace a Zoom future.
Of course, the leisure and hospitality sector goes far beyond tourism.
For many Americans, the pandemic has disrupted ordinary pleasures in our daily public lives – weeknight dinners at a favorite restaurant, casual conversations at a coffee shop, drinks with friends at a neighborhood bar, live music in venues both large and small.
Those simple but vital experiences won’t return immediately to normal, especially given the risk of more contagious COVID-19 variants. Consumers who have been careful for the past year aren’t going to suddenly throw caution to the winds when the remaining legal restrictions are lifted.
If too many people let down their guards, the end of the pandemic could be especially messy, which would lead to more illnesses and deaths.
And if the public health picture darkens or simply doesn’t improve as quickly as it might,the economic recovery will be delayed.
When future historians study the pandemic, they will probably be struck by how often leaders suggested that we faced an either-or choice between public health and the economy.
If we keep making strides to reduce the health threats, we should see a rebound in employment in the next few months. If those improvements are boosted by another round of federal stimulus, many area workers will be in dramatically better shape by summer.
Bill Dawers can be reached via @billdawers on Twitter and [email protected]