The pandemic’s grip on the economy appears to be loosening. Job growth and retail spending were strong in January, even as coronavirus cases hit a record. New York, Massachusetts and other states have begun to lift indoor mask mandates. California on Thursday unveiled a public health approach that will treat the coronavirus as a manageable long-term risk.
Yet the economy remains far from normal. Patterns of work, socializing and spending, disrupted by the pandemic, have been slow to readjust. Prices are rising at their fastest pace in four decades, and there are signs that inflation is creeping into a broader range of products and services. In surveys, Americans report feeling gloomier about the economy now than at the height of the lockdowns and job losses in the first weeks of the crisis.
In other words, it may no longer be that “the virus is the boss” — as Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist, has put it. But the changes that it set in motion have proved both more persistent and more pervasive than economists once expected.
“I — totally naïvely — thought that once a vaccine was available, that we were six months away from a complete re-evaluation of the economy, and instead we’re just grinding it out,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project, an economic policy arm of the Brookings Institution. “A switch didn’t get flipped, and I thought it was going to.”
computer chips, lumber and even garage doors have held up production of items from cars to houses, while a lack of shipping containers has led to delays in almost anything transported from overseas. Some bottlenecks have let up in recent months, but logistics experts expect it to take months if not years for supply chains to run smoothly again.
disproportionate share of them women — have not.
Diahann Thomas was at work at a Brooklyn call center in January when she got a call from her son’s school: Her 11-year-old had been exposed to a classmate who had tested positive for Covid-19, and she needed to pick him up.
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“There are all these moving parts now with Covid — one moment, they’re at school, the next moment they’re at home,” she said.
Ms. Thomas, 50, said her employer declined to provide flexibility while her son was in quarantine. So she quit — a decision she said was made easier by the knowledge that employers are eager to hire.
“It did boost my confidence to know that at the end of this, it’s not going to be difficult for me to pick up the pieces, and I have more bargaining power now,” she said. “There is this whole entire shift in terms of employee-employer relationship.”
Ms. Thomas expects to return to work once school schedules become more reliable. But the pandemic has shown her the value of being at home with her three children, she said, and she wants a job where she can work from home.
Whether and how people like Ms. Thomas return to work will be crucial to the economy’s path in coming months. If workers flood back to the job market as school and child care becomes more dependable and health risks recede, it will be easier for manufacturers and shipping companies to ramp up production and deliveries, giving supply a chance to catch up to demand. That in turn could allow inflation to cool without losing the economy’s progress over the past year.