When COVID-19 turned the world upside-down last spring, my company, RRC Associates, shifted much of our focus to helping clients understand how the pandemic is affecting people’s thinking and behavior. How safe do they feel going back to restaurants, stores and offices? What about travel? What can businesses and local governments do to increase both the perception and reality of public safety as we all adjust to the “new normal”?
Since early summer, we have been conducting two ongoing national surveys. The Mountain Traveler Sentiment Survey has more than 40,000 responses from frequent visitors to mountain resort communities across the U.S. The Urban District Survey is a partnership with the International Downtown Association and measures how residents in cities across the nation are feeling about what is happening in their communities.
So as the pandemic stretches into its seventh month with no clear end in sight, just how are people feeling? Here are some highlights of what we have found so far:
Nationally, people are eager to get back to enjoying some normal activities, but not all. They are feeling very comfortable with outdoor restaurant seating, shopping in retail stores, getting their hair cut and going back to offices. Around three-quarters of respondents said they would feel comfortable engaging in these activities.
Most people still do not feel safe eating indoors at restaurants or going to concerts, movies or sporting events. They would be comfortable taking road trips, but are not excited about getting back on airplanes. And they are definitely not planning to take a cruise any time soon.
When asked where they would choose to go on a first trip, a large majority of people want to return to a favorite destination that they know and feel comfortable visiting. This is definitely not the year for new adventures or exotic vacations.
Keep in mind that, for most people, comfort levels with venturing out are correlated to knowing that safety protocols are enforced. Nationally, 95 percent of respondents want to know that regular disinfecting takes place and to have the cleaning schedule posted. Over 90 percent of respondents to our urban survey want masks to be required of employees and customers in retail stores. And most people would rather stand in line to get into their favorite retailers like REI and Trader Joe’s than deal with crowded aisles that do not allow social distancing.
Of course, the results vary sharply depending on where people live. Respondents in Oklahoma are less concerned with safety protocols than those in California and Colorado. And, as we saw at the recent conventions, political affiliation also affects attitudes. Republicans prefer more laissez-faire policies toward safety protocols, and Democrats support stricter enforcement.
So what does all of this mean? Here are a few examples:
For restaurants, more big challenges lay ahead. At least until there is a vaccine, they will struggle to get people back into their dining rooms. As winter approaches, this will be a huge challenge and require creative solutions.
In the travel sector, mountain, desert and rural destinations with open space and outdoor activities will have big advantages over denser environments like cities and theme parks. People will also drive much further than in the past to get to a favorite vacation spot and avoid flying.
Of course, it remains to be seen how many of these changes will last beyond the pandemic. One thing is clear, though. Life will not return to what it was anytime soon and maybe never. We are all making adjustments to how we live, work and play — and we will keep making them for quite some time.
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. You can email him at email@example.com to blog