The rapid transformation of the U.S. economy to “remote” during the pandemic—a switchover likely to endure in many respects after vaccinated immunity to Covid-19 is reasonably achieved—is gigantic testimony to the private sector’s adaptability. No official edicts beyond the initial lockdowns were necessary to bring about a relatively efficient changeover.
Start with the physical delivery services that teamed with e-commerce and eats-order platforms to bring off this dramatic expansion of what was in place before March 2020. Then there’ve been the connectivity media (Zoom being the iconic example) and fintech, which has greatly vanquished paper currency. (A coin shortage that oddly developed during the year has been only a minor event because so little is still transacted in cash.) The retail banking and brokerage businesses are now greatly cyber industries.
Personal auto use was, admittedly, a great part of society’s adaptation. “Curbside” pickup sufficed for any number of formerly indoor consumes. Few stores maintain the pull to demand entry for satisfaction. Costco is one (albeit with a website for much of its stuff). Trader Joe’s is the most adamant exception—though even there, a hack is claimed.
If business was quick to react, how did public entities fare? Not so well, in some highly visible cases.
The U.S. Postal Service continues to suffer service disruptions. Many blame these on the Trump appointee as postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, who took office in June. His changes in overtime and sorting-machinery surely had effects, but recent delivery problems traced at least back to the pandemic’s start in March and continue today, even as some of DeJoy’s edicts have been countermanded. USPS woes are complex and include financial shifts made years ago, but the struggle to serve its core customers seven months into an era made-to-order for its mission does not bespeak adaptability.
Another significant laggard has been the nation’s urban school systems. They have proven particularly unable to provide mass instruction so vital to economically struggling households. Unionized staff has balked at in-classroom offerings even as online attendance has faltered. Months of delay and confusion have encouraged parents to seize alternatives (starting with informal instructional “pods”) where they can.
The New York City schools exemplify the problem, even while they’ve attempted more classroom work than other big districts. (The politics of this are that Mayor Bill de Blasio, though a union Democrat, is foremost a champion of “working” families who most need teachers on duty.) A seesaw effort to provide in-person options, plus doubts about the quality of the learning, has depleted enrollment. The Department of Education keeps its numbers close, but all indications are that it has lost thousands of students. Notably, sectarian and other private schools have gained.
Labor patterns are going to need to adjust to sustain the enlarged remote economy overall. Reliable, competent “logistics” operators will be needed. One potential source is the hugely displaced administrative-support employees, no longer being called into America’s office complexes. Job re-placements could be facilitated by local job banks and community colleges.
But the record thus far suggests that the best role for public officials may be to get out of this way. Think of how outdoor dining ramped up once zoning and parking rules were relaxed. People are perpetually ingenious at selling goods and services, come what may, as long as they aren’t otherwise encumbered.