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The Great American Migration of 2020: On the move to escape the coronavirus

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Lisa Pezzino and Kit Center of Oakland gaze out at a rainbow over the mountains in Big Sur, Calif., after they migrated into nature to get away from the Bay Area during the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Back home in Oakland, Calif., Lisa Pezzino and Kit Center built a life that revolved around music and the people who make it — the musicians who recorded on Pezzino’s small label and performed in places where Center rigged the lights and sound equipment.

Where they are now, deep in the redwood forest near Big Sur, 140 miles south along the California coast, there is mostly the towering silence of isolation. A tiny cabin, an outdoor kitchen, just one neighbor. This is life in the flight from the virus.

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They left town with four days of clothing and every intention of coming right home. And then the new rules kicked in, and state officials urged people to stay inside. There would be no concerts, no musicians wandering by to plan a recording session. Pezzino, a civil engineer who can work remotely, and Center, whose rigging work definitely cannot be done from home, decided to stay put in the woods, indefinitely. They joined the impromptu Great American Migration of 2020.

“The heartbeat of what we do is in gathering, the community of where we live,” Pezzino said. “That’s what keeps me in the Bay Area. It’s certainly not the rent, which is crazy. When everything we do was canceled, my response was, ‘Gosh, then, can we go to the country?’ ”

Even as most people stay close to home in this deeply disruptive time, millions have been on the move, a mass migration that looks urgent and temporary but might contain the seeds of a wholesale shift in where and how Americans live. College students and young adults are on the interstates, heading home to repopulate their parents’ empty nests. Middle-aged people have been heading to their parents’ retirement communities.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) ordered people statewide to "shelter in place" on March 19, an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post)

From beaches and resort towns to mountain cabins to rural family homesteads, places far from densely packed cities are drawing people eager to escape from infection hot spots. But virus fugitives often are running into fierce opposition on their routes, including Florida’s effort to block New Yorkers from joining their relatives in the Sunshine State, a police checkpoint keeping outsiders from entering the Florida Keys, and several coastal islands closing bridges to try to keep the coronavirus at bay.

As President Trump’s administration develops a national ranking of counties as high-, medium- or low-risk for the spread of the virus, people in search of relative safety — and perhaps some paying work — are expanding existing trends away from expensive, crowded cities and toward small towns and rural areas.

“The movement we’re seeing now is not just a reaction to one pandemic,” said Joel Kotkin, who studies how and why people move and wrote about the “Coming Age of Dispersion” at newgeography.com. “There will be a longer impact, an acceleration of the process that was already starting. The work-at-home trend was already building, the small towns were already becoming much more cosmopolitan, with more and better coffee places and restaurants, and the big cities were already becoming prohibitively expensive.”

Pezzino is not giving up on her city home, but her forced sojourn into the country has her thinking about a changed future: “My heart remains in Oakland, but this experience brings up really hard questions. It could be that the restaurants and bars don’t survive and a lot of artists who bartend to make ends meet won’t have those options, and then where is the art and music scene that keeps me in Oakland?”

No one expects cities to completely empty out, but some businesses undoubtedly will look back on this time of enforced work-from-home policies and figure that maybe they do not need to spend as much on pricey downtown office space. And some of the cultural amenities that drew people to cities during the past generation will struggle to return, having been damaged by this spring’s economic paralysis and by a new wariness about large gatherings.

“You’ll still have urban centers,” Kotkin said. “But they’ll be less intense and more dispersed. You’ll no longer have to choose between unaffordable, overcrowded cities and incredibly boring countryside. There will be a more attractive middle ground.”

Already, the arrival of urban emigres — whether temporarily or long term — has raised alarms in many vacation communities. In Bethany Beach, Del., police posted a plea on Facebook, begging people not to drive out to their summer homes and not to rent temporary housing: “Although this area is awesome, we have limited hospitalization facilities that cannot accommodate a rise in potential illnesses. . . . #stayathome means just that! This isn’t the time to send your kids to ‘the beach.’ . . . Now is not the time to start a project at your beach house.”

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“People are leaving populated areas, and they’re coming to their second homes here,” said Paul Kuhns, the mayor of Rehoboth Beach, Del., a resort town with about 1,500 year-round residents, but where the summer weekend population can soar above 25,000.

“It’s very difficult to tell people not to go to their second home — they have no problem reminding me that they pay taxes — but my big fear is, we’re going to be overwhelmed because our medical facilities are very limited,” he said.

At the Polo Club, a gated community in Boca Raton, Fla., recent days have seen an influx of Northerners, especially from the hard-hit New York metro area — a reversal of the usual traffic this time of year, when snowbirds head back north, said Joel Rosenberg, a physician who heads the club’s emergency preparedness task force.

“They’re bringing in extended family to get away from the virus, and we’re asking them to maintain a 14-day quarantine,” he said. “There’s no legal way we can force them, but we’re asking, really imploring.”

As the threat of the virus intensified last week, Danette Denlinger Brown, 54, hoped to relocate from Williamsburg, Va., to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where she and her husband own a second home. But as she prepared to leave, she learned that North Carolina police had blocked the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge connecting the mainland to the barrier island. Only year-round residents could cross, a restriction county officials said was necessary to stop migrating families from overwhelming the area’s only hospital, a 20-bed facility.

Real estate agents “were actively soliciting people to come down,” said Bobby Outten, the county manager of Dare County, which contains part of the Outer Banks. “We can’t handle all that.”

Brown, who owns a concrete company with her husband and planned to work from their waterfront house, said she has a compromised immune system and would feel safer in the more remote location. The decision to bar second-home owners was “very underhanded,” she said. “Everyone worked hard for their second home and should not be punished for having one.”

Stay in the city?

Economic downturns have a way of altering people’s decisions about where and how to live. American history is a story of movement toward cities. But a shock to the system can reverse that trend: During the Great Depression of the 1930s, as factories shuttered, many people left cities to be closer to cheaper housing, work and relatives.

But urbanist Richard Florida, who famously predicted the rush of college graduates to big cities with concentrations of jobs in tech, the arts and allied fields, said the pandemic is unlikely to reverse the urbanization trend.

“Look back at the history of 20th-century pandemics, and they have not budged the fundamental force of urbanization,” he said. “What followed the 1918 flu pandemic was the Roaring ’20s, which sparked a decade of great city building.”

Some affluent Americans might abandon city life, Florida said: Rich New Yorkers, for example, “are going back to the Hamptons, and older people who are scared of things like viruses are less likely to have that Fifth Avenue apartment.” But that “temporary reset” will lead, he said, to “a period when urban real estate is slightly more affordable.” That could breathe new life into cities that had been suffering from crushingly high housing prices.

Cities could evolve to adapt to public concerns about crowding — think more open space and wider sidewalks — but rural broadband and health care have a long way to go before remote areas can compete with cities, Florida said.

In Seattle, the first major U.S. city hit hard by the coronavirus, the lure of remote work at second homes or in the spare bedrooms of relatives who live in the Cascades quickly collided with the reality of limited rural broadband. Then, as a perceived influx of virus refugees into mountain, coastal and island towns sparked a backlash from full-time residents, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) issued stricter stay-at-home orders.

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Kevin and Julia Piasecki have owned a home in Mazama, Wash., since 2012. It is a five-hour drive from Seattle in the winter because of highway closures in the snowy mountains. The couple got married there in 2004 and had long dreamed of making it their full-time residence.

So when the virus hit and Kevin, 51, took leave from his physical therapy job and Julia, 47, began working from home for the large pharmaceutical company where she is a research scientist, the couple plotted an extended getaway.

But they had to abandon the plan when they realized their connection to work would be iffy. “We don’t have reliable Internet in Mazama, and now that there’s more people hunkering down,” the resource is even less certain, Kevin said.

The Piaseckis still dream of moving to the country full time, but the pandemic has given them newfound appreciation for their 100-year-old house in Seattle with a view of Mt. Rainier.

“I complain about the traffic, pollution and crowded trailheads,” Kevin said. But “it’s easy to take Seattle’s health care for granted.”

Health care was also a consideration for Seattle residents John and Barbara O’Halloran, who escaped from the city to a wood-frame cabin they own in Mazama on 107 acres abutting a national forest.

“We can hear the Methow River when the windows are open,” John said. “It’s remote, beautiful and frankly where you want to be in a pandemic.”

The couple went there in early March to catch the end of cross-country ski season, with coronavirus in the back of their minds. “We came prepared to spend some indefinite period of time,” he said.

But when John, 65, suffered a ski injury in Telluride, Colo., in January, the local clinic had no ultrasound machine. He had to drive two hours to assess his injury. “It was a wake-up call that health care is really important, but it’s uneven across the U.S.,” he said.

It’s a risk they’ve decided to take, even though they would have to travel 90 minutes from their cabin to a small hospital if the virus hits them.

A 'bonus track'

Amid the chaos in many big cities, getting away still remains attractive to those who can find a way out.

Michael Zinder, 66, a lawyer, and his wife, Charlotte, decamped from their Manhattan apartment to their weekend retreat in Long Island’s Hamptons beach community in mid-March. They brought groceries and plan to stay as long as social distancing is the order of the day. Zinder can work remotely, and he figures the rural setting makes infection far less likely.

“In the city, I’m in an apartment building,” he said. “I can’t even go out for groceries, there are so many people. There’s a good chance they’ll be in the elevator or the lobby. Here, I’m less likely to come in contact with anyone.”

Zinder has noticed complaints in the local media about virus refugees from the city consuming limited rural resources, but no one has expressed any hostility to him.

The temporary dislocation urbanists expect is most evident so far among college students whose campuses shut down and 20-somethings fleeing tight roommate situations and tiny apartments.

After Wesleyan University in Connecticut announced it would send students home for the semester, Martha Wedner, 19, checked into an emergency room, feeling short of breath. It turned out to be anxiety, said her mother, Anne Wedner, likely “driven by the departure from school and from having to live with parents again.”

Now Martha is home in Winnetka, Ill., and the migration is taking some getting used to.

“We don’t really understand why, when we say, ‘Let’s watch a movie together, or play cards, or backgammon,’ that she’s not like, ‘Great!’ ” her father, Marcus, said.

One recent night, after Anne cooked a vegan recipe that Martha had found on Instagram, the family watched “Little Women,” and “we thought we had had a very nice night,” Anne said.

But after her parents went to sleep, Martha texted them her new ground rules:

“Not everything needs to be a family activity.”

“I do not want to be micromanaged.”

“You guys can and should eat dinner without me, aka I will be wanting to eat dinner alone and I will not always want to tell you every single time what I am doing all the time.”

“I am turning my location off from now on.”

Martha was adamant on this: “My Mom still sees my location! Which is literally a ‘Black Mirror’ episode,” she said in an interview.

The parents, at once amused and dejected, resolved to honor their new housemate’s wishes.

In Charlotte, it was the parents who posted the rules. When Rob and Mary Tabor Engel’s daughter, Currie, a 23-year-old graduate student at Columbia University, arrived back home, she found a list of 13 “house reminders” taped to the kitchen wall.

“If you yell ‘Mom’ or ‘Mary’ from more than one room away,” one said, “we will arrive with a diagnostic test kit as it will be deemed an emergency.”

Another: “Our WiFi works. God is in charge of the Internet. If it’s not working, check the router (under mom’s desk), then troubleshoot yourself.”

Mary is grateful to have her family back under the same roof: “I’m thinking of this as a curtain call, or a bonus track on a record.”

She added: “Call in a month and see if I’m still saying the same thing.”

Weissenbach reported from Los Angeles. Lori Rozsa in Boca Raton, Fla., and Gregory Scruggs in Seattle contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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