When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, big parts of the U.S. economy just turned off. Voluntary social distancing and lockdowns, like those during the first wave in March, were necessary to help "flatten the curve" of COVID-19's spread throughout the country, but these lockdowns had ripple effects on the economy.
Millions suddenly lost their jobs, pushing unemployment to historic highs. When travel ground to a halt, hotel occupancy plummeted — and so did profits, which dropped 84.6% in 2020 from a year earlier. In New Jersey, that meant hotel owner Bhavesh Patel had to furlough employees to make ends meet.
"It really hurt me 'cause you get to know these employees. They're like family to you, and you know some of the kids," he says. "It was hard."
Elsewhere in the country, attorney Lee Camp began to see a spike in calls to his office, which represents tenants in St. Louis. Many of his clients, like 52-year-old Cynthia, had been laid off from their service-industry jobs. Cynthia worked as a housekeeper in a St. Louis-area hotel. When she lost her job early in the pandemic, she fell behind on rent. Now she faces eviction.
Millions of people across the country are in similar straits. And those who might not be at risk of housing insecurity might face food insecurity. Feeding America, which partners with food banks across the country, says it has seen a 60% increase in demand during the pandemic. At the Just One Project, a mobile food market in Las Vegas, Brooke Neubauer served twice as many people in 2020 than she did in 2019, and she suspects she'll continue to be busy for years to come.
Lisa Winton has also been busy during the pandemic. Her factory in Suwanee, Ga., which makes machinery used to form bent metal tubes, has stayed open during the pandemic, and many of her customers make products like refrigerators and lawn furniture — products that Americans with money have continued to buy in droves.
That factory is one of the parts of the economy that are slowly coming back. Some sectors are thriving, while others continue to struggle, putting different people in vastly different situations. NPR will spend the year following four people who will help illustrate the arc of the expected economic recovery.
For hotel owner, a downturn worse than Sept. 11
Bhavesh Patel grew up in a hotel. Now he owns seven of them in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois. They're "limited service" hotels, like Comfort Inn, which have guest rooms and serve a continental or regular breakfast, and have a pool and exercise facilities.
Before the pandemic, his hotels were usually about 60-80% full, with corporate clientele during the weekdays and leisure on the weekends, with sports fans, tourists or weddings.
The hospitality industry felt immediate effects from the shutdowns, as indoor dining became limited and bars and restaurants pivoted to takeout or delivery. Americans took fewer trips overall; public transit ridership dropped nearly 90% in some areas, and commercial flights were down around 60%.
Less travel meant fewer occupied hotel rooms. Patel's hotels are only about 10-15% occupied, when they normally would be more than half-full.
Patel has run hotels since 1986, but he grew up in the industry when his family moved to the United States from England and his father bought a property in New Jersey.
"A small, 25-room property by McGuire Air Force Base," Patel recalls. The family lived there "because such a small property has living quarters and that's basically how we grew up."
Patel and his siblings did a little of everything. "We helped clean rooms. I used to be a lifeguard at our property. We did maintenance. I did lawn care. You name it, I did it."
Patel had a job lined up in New York City when he was set to graduate college in the mid-1980s, when fate intervened. His father had a brain aneurysm. Patel came home to help.
"It was my mom basically saying, 'Hey, finish school and then we'll see what we want to do about these properties.' And then I just fell into taking care of these properties and then we just added from there."
In his nearly 40 years in the hotel industry, Patel has never seen a financial impact like the one from the pandemic.
After "9/11, we took a hit, but we bounced back after a few months," he says. "COVID is the most time that we've gotten hit financially, occupancy-wise."
Patel is grateful his hotels have been able to stay open through the pandemic — he has associates who've had to close — but he has had to furlough six out of 14 employees, with occupancy being as low as it is.
The hotel industry alone will remain almost 500,000 jobs below its pre-pandemic level, though hotels are also expected to add more jobs throughout the year, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
Still, despite the challenges of the previous year, Patel remains optimistic and hopeful. He's working with his banks and local government on property and income taxes, cutting payroll costs, lightening the load so his hotels can survive.
"My father started this small company. I want to expand upon the company," Patel says. "I don't want to see it go down, and I'm not going to let it go down without a fight."
Bracing for a "tsunami of evictions"
Lee Camp has been trying not to drown in a tidal wave of evictions over the last year. He's an attorney in St. Louis with Arch City Defenders, an organization that represents tenants.
"We'll see spikes in eviction filings happen almost every time there is a moratoria that lapses," Camp says. Each spike is followed by a deluge of phone calls to his office. President Biden extended a federal moratorium on evictions through June 30, but that only covers about a third of rental properties in the United States. Across the country, renters are still being evicted from their homes, despite the ban.
"I've dealt with families who have literally showed up to their homes and the doorknobs and locks have been changed so they can't get access to their home, or the utilities have been disconnected," Camp says.
He notes that the housing crisis existed long before the coronavirus. Like the pandemic, housing instability disproportionately affects communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx women.
They look a lot like Cynthia, who is one of Camp's clients. We're omitting her last name to avoid jeopardizing her chances for future employment. Before the pandemic, she was working as a housekeeper at a hotel in St. Louis County. When the pandemic hit and travel sputtered, Cynthia was laid off.
"They sent a letter, saying sign up for unemployment," she tells NPR. "I didn't get unemployment 'til four or five months." Meanwhile, she was falling further and further behind on rent for the house she lives in with her two adult kids, who have also struggled to find work, and her 8-year-old grandson. The house is in disrepair, and their landlord wants them to leave.
"I want to be out of here just as bad as they want us out. Because I'm not like that, not paying my bills and don't want to pay," Cynthia says. "I wants to pay."
Camp and Cynthia reached a settlement with her landlord, and she'll be able to stay in the house, for now. But she'll have to leave when eviction protections expire, which could be any day.
"With her sole source of income being unemployment benefits, she is not a tenant that will likely have a lot of success renting in the open market," Camp says.
Cynthia has been without housing in the past, and she doesn't want to go through that again.
"I can't take it no more," she says. "I just can't. It's a very stressful, hurting feeling to be there. If I be homeless again," she pauses, and starts to cry, "it's gonna separate my family."
Separation isn't the only thing she has to fear. Coronavirus cases continue to rise across the country. Cynthia has health issues and she can't afford to get sick.
"We are in a public health crisis, and one of the defenses to this pandemic is remaining in your home," Camp points out. "We need to keep people housed to stymie the spread of this deadly disease."
He doesn't quite know what to expect in the next few months, with Cynthia or his other clients.
"I am writing things in pencil versus pen. I have stopped trying to predict what I'm going to be doing in three months or six months," he says. "I hope that this tsunami of evictions never happens. And I hope that because a tsunami is a natural disaster that can't be prevented. Well, we can prevent this."
Her factory is humming amid high demand
Lisa Winton co-owns Winton Machine Co. in Suwanee, Ga., which is about 20 minutes away from metro Atlanta. She and her husband George started the company more than 20 years ago.
"We're kind of one of those homegrown businesses, started in our basement."
Today, they operate in a huge, high-ceilinged building with about 35 employees, making the machines that Winton's customers will use to make or form tubular parts for products. And those parts can go into everything from the Mars Rover and missile defense systems to lawn furniture and appliances.
"Think about a refrigerator," Lisa Winton likes to say, "in the back of a refrigerator, you have a serpentine coil used for heat transfer."
Though many American businesses are struggling, Winton Machine is doing pretty well, and that's because the products it specializes in making are still in demand.
"When you think about it, people are home more, so they're using their heat, they're using their air conditioner more," Winton says. "So whether it be parts for repairs or brand new units, either way, those manufacturers are busy."
Still, the year hasn't been without challenges. Winton has had to shift workers' schedules across the day and night, so fewer people will be on the factory floor at any given time. And some of her customers are taking longer to pay her.
"Where they normally would pay their bills in 30 days, now a lot of larger companies are saying, 'We're not paying for 60 or 75 days.' If you're a smaller company, you have to have cash flow," Winton says. There was also a dry spell, and she got a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help with credit. Then, Congress passed another relief package late last year.
"They released all the funds at the same time, so everybody placed orders at the same time. So now, the challenge is how do you deliver all the orders that were placed at the same time?"
In fact, Winton is looking for more workers — and she says, she's not alone.
"Going into the fourth quarter, a large number of manufacturers just went into overdrive, and it's not uncommon that they've gone into mandatory overtime," she says.
But, Winton says, there's a skills gap — lots of well-paying jobs and lots of people looking for jobs but who aren't trained for them. "It invigorates me more to figure out how as a nation, can we really support the retraining efforts," she says, "to make sure that the employers within those areas have the skilled workforce that they need to be successful."
Her outlook for the year is optimistic. For now, she's hoping to continue to grow the company and hire more people.
Food insecurity is hitting people "from all walks of life"
Brooke Neubauer runs the Just One Project, a food pantry in Las Vegas. She used to do small-scale community service projects like toy and clothing drives in Nevada. Then, after a Christmas toy drive, she got a call from Del Monte Foods with a question.
"Would you guys like 25,000 pounds of fruit?" she recalls. But there was a catch: She had to pick it up in California the very next day. She found a volunteer with a trucking company.
"Within 24 hours of actually getting the call, we were in that same community, but instead of Christmas gifts, we now had fruit," she says. "It was mangoes, it was pineapples."
That experience led her to focus on hunger in her home state, and now the Just One Project is the largest mobile food market in southern Nevada. She says she's seen a huge increase in people who come through her lines.
"For 2020, we served 386,000 people," which was more than double the number they served last year, she says. "We distributed 5.5 million pounds of food in 2020."
To serve all these people while keeping them as safe as possible, the Just One Project operates a stationary drive-through, which offers free groceries by appointment, and a delivery program for seniors or people with compromised immunity. Every month, Neubauer and her volunteers run a "Pop-Up and Give" event, during which they head to 12 other locations in different communities, usually at middle schools or high schools. In about three hours, Neubauer estimates, they serve about 17,000 people.
"Now, it's a different animal, because now you have people from all walks of life. Now you have people that were casino executives in our lines," she says. "I always used to tell people anyway that hunger has no face, and now that's as real as ever."
Seventy-eight-year-old Shari is one of the thousands of people in Nevada who depend on the Just One Project. NPR isn't using her last name because she has experienced identity theft and wants to be cautious. She's retired after a career working as a medical technician, and lives with her grandson, who is a locksmith.
"He's a hard worker when he's working, but he's been laid off twice now in this pandemic," she tells NPR. So the Just One Project has become more important than ever.
"When my great-granddaughter is hungry, I can go up to the pantry and say, 'Hon, what would you like for lunch?' or 'What can I fix you for breakfast?" Shari says.
And now, her experience going to get food is very different than it was during her first visit two years ago. Before the pandemic, she says, a person could show up for a 9 a.m. appointment and it would take 10 minutes to get their food and leave.
"Now, there are so many people out of work, so many people with families hungry and needing some type of help that you have to get there sometimes two hours before your appointment to get in this long line of cars," she says.
Neubauer doesn't see an end to the need for food pantries anytime soon.
"I think that we are going to take so many years to recover. I think that's the hardest thing for me," she says. "We're really focusing on sustainability so that we can be here for the community for a long term, because I know that the people that are in our lines right now, they might be with us for a very long time to come."