A vision of post-pandemic suburbia

A home stands in Herndon, Va., on Dec. 12, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.

If the pandemic will leave New York City poorer, younger and, eventually, more dynamic, what might happen to a typical upper-income American suburb? Like, say, my home venue of Fairfax County, Virginia?

Just outside Washington, D.C, Fairfax County has a population of slightly more than 1 million, and it often ranks as one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Its economy is closely linked to the federal government and the Pentagon, and features a wide array of contractors and information technology services, very little manufacturing, and a plethora of strip malls and shopping malls - most prominently Tysons, which includes two huge shopping centers.

What is striking about the county's workers, then, is that social distancing is proving either very easy or very difficult, with relatively few cases in between. The federal workers, the information workers and the government contractors all have a relatively easy time working from home. Their arrangements are likely to continue for months, with a minimum of disruption, and that is good news for the region.

Yet the picture is not entirely cheery. This corner of Northern Virginia is a place to buy things, not produce them. It is hard to see the Tysons retail area coming back anytime soon. Online delivery is fairly popular in Fairfax County, as broadband is the norm, neighborhoods are largely safe and front porches are big enough to store whatever shows up.

Shopping malls were under economic pressure even before covid-19, and now their obstacles are all the more daunting. Even if you trust the mall's ventilation system (and how can you really tell?), you may not want to try clothes on in the fitting room, interact with a shoe salesman, go to the movies, sit in the food court or use the local restrooms (again, how can you really tell how frequently they are cleaned?).

The immediate future of my region thus appears to be a major demand shock to the stores, acceptable continuing employment for the upper middle class, and economic devastation for lower-income individuals. The traditional mix of government-connected employment and retail will swing heavily in the direction of government. In essence, the federal government will pay its employees to click on Amazon while working from home.

Speaking of which, Amazon's expansion in the area, while not in Fairfax County itself, is only a short drive away. Since the company's lobbying activity and government contracting will be run from the Crystal City site, the area will become even more dependent on government activity. Those same Amazon employees are probably quite willing to buy things online as well.

The ethnic dimension of covid-19 in Fairfax County is especially noteworthy. Latinos make up 16.8% of the county's population, but account for 62.7% of the diagnosed covid-19 cases. And if you assume that perhaps lower-income Latinos are less willing or able to go to a doctor, the true percentage of the Latino cases may be higher yet.

I thus foresee a future where people are more reluctant to hire Latino immigrants for housework or for child care, and thus additional home responsibilities will fall on parents, probably disproportionately on women. In turn, I expect many Latinos to leave the area, at least temporarily, unable to afford the higher rents when there is little work. There may also be greater employer discrimination against Latino applicants, as unfair or unjust as that would be.

Those developments will lead to Fairfax County becoming whiter. (If you are wondering, blacks are a slightly lower covid-19 case share in the county than population share).

I also expect Northern Virginia as a whole to become more culturally independent, for better or worse. In percentage terms, the death toll in Washington has actually been worse than that of Wuhan, China. Might affluent suburbanites decide to take their entertainment more locally and in more spacious quarters? Look for Northern Virginia to develop its own local busking music tradition, performed at the outdoor Angelika Mosaic mall rather than in Tysons Corner proper. Or how about small-scale theater set in Fairfax County's extensive network of public parks?

As for me: My university employer will have to adjust, as will my professional life. Beyond the office (whether work or home), I expect my immediate surroundings to become less vibrant and less interesting. If I had to a sum up in a single sentence how covid-19 will affect my non-work life in Fairfax County, it would be this: "The traffic is better, but the restaurants are worse."

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

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