Neither U.S. Consumers Nor Epidemiologists Expect To Get Back To Normal Any Time Soon

An awful lot of time has been spent studying how the average consumer will react to the U.S. economy’s “grand reopening.” How do they feel about getting back out there? Are there activities they’ll miss? What will they avoid?

The questions are nearly endless, but not quite answerless. PYMNTS has spent the past 12 weeks surveying to consumers about their lives under lockdown and their plans for the recovery period — and we’ve learned an awful lot.

According to our most recent data, the average consumer expects the COVID-19 pandemic to last another eight or nine months until February 2021. That compares to the roughly four months that consumers were anticipating this would go on when we surveyed them back in early March as the pandemic was just beginning.

PYMNTS also found that consumers are less worried about the virus these days than they were when we surveyed them in mid-April, when their concerns peaked. But our latest poll nonetheless found Americans somewhat unlikely to fully embrace their pre-pandemic lives in the immediate future.

Instead, our latest survey found that consumers have gone very digital in their shopping, and have begun optimizing their choices around the best digital channels available to them. Many average consumers also plan to stay digital even after the crisis passes.

But what about the not quite average consumer? How are epidemiologists — presumably the most informed and knowledgeable among us about the pandemic — easing into the recovery period?

Well, thanks to The New York Times, there’s now survey information on that, too — and it turns out epidemiologists are an awful lot like the average consumer. The Times surveyed 511 epidemiologists and found that some are on the early edge of getting back out to dine, shop and socialize despite a lack of treatments for the disease. But the majority plan to sit out concerts, sporting events and religious services until there’s a vaccine.

What most of the epidemiologists agree on is that there’s no specific calendar for a return to normalcy. Individual circumstances — including risk tolerance, current health status and expectations about when there will be widespread testing, treatment and vaccination — will determine their individual actions going forward.

“The answers have nothing to do with calendar time,” epidemiologist Kristi McClamroch of the University at Albany told the Times.

Still, there are some basic guidelines that many of the experts surveyed agree make sense, like focusing on outdoor activities and small groups instead of being indoors and in large crowds. Most also agreed that we will all be wearing masks for a while if we want to safely intermingle.

“Fresh air, sun, socialization and a healthy activity will be just as important for my mental health as my physical well-being,” Anala Gossai, a scientist at health-technology firm Flatiron Health, told the paper. She plans to socialize outdoors this summer.

Epidemiologists did show a slightly higher tendency to avoid riding public transportation, using salon services, dining out and a handful of other activities.

Sally Picciotto of the University of California/Berkeley told the Times she doesn’t enjoy social distancing, but sees it as the only truly safe choice. She doesn’t expect to get back into her office or have public rotation for at least another year. That made her part of the 18 percent of epidemiologists polled by the Times who plan to hit the pause button of physical socializing for the next year or so.

Still, the largest share of respondents — even in the community most informed on the disease and its potential spread — seem fairly open to resuming some parts of their normal lives. Going to the beauty salon, for example, is on the agenda for 41 percent of survey respondents at some point this summer. Less than 20 percent say they’ll hold off for at least a year.

“It really is a trade-off between risky behavior and seeing yourself in the mirror with a mullet,” epidemiologist Robert Smith of the American Cancer Society told the paper.

About a third are also open to attending a dinner party hosted by a friend, and roughly a quarter plan to dine in a restaurant.

The epidemiologists surveyed also seem like a demographic most likely to be influenced by conditions on the ground as they venture out into public. For example, a notable portion of those surveyed said they’d base decisions on what activities to resume based on factors like whether people are wearing masks, whether physical distancing is possible and whether there’s an easily accessible digital alternative.

Others are weighing the risks of catching the virus against the risk that isolation poses to their mental health. “I’m young and single, and a gal can only last so long in the modern world,” epidemiologist Melissa Sharp told the Times.

But regardless of what activities they do and don’t resume, many of the epidemiologists plan to permanently act differently. For instance, 42 percent reported that hugging and shaking hands are off the table for them for at least a year, with 6 percent saying they would never do either again.

“The worst casualty of the epidemic is the loss of human contact,” Eduardo Franco of McGill University told the paper.

But not every epidemiologist is as sentimental about the loss of human contact. “Always hated those particular needless exchanges of pathogens and unwanted touching,” epidemiologist Carl Phillips of Epiphi Consulting said to the Times.

Either way, many epidemiologists believe that even when life returns to normal, “normal” won’t be the same as it was. “The world has changed and will be different for a long time. This is the crisis of our lifetime and we need to embrace it,’” T. Christopher Bond, an associate director at Bristol Myers Squibb, told the paper.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.