Welcome to the Great American Migration

Marc Fisher

THE WASHINGTON POST – Back home in Oakland, California, 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 neighbour. This is life in the flight from the virus.

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 cancelled, 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.

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Lisa Pezzino and Kit Center of Oakland gaze out at a rainbow over the mountains in Big Sur, California, after they migrated into nature to get away from the Bay Area during the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak. PHOTOS: WASHINGTON POST
Kit Center enhances the couple’s second home

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 hotspots.

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 United States (US) President Donald 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 cafes don’t survive and a lot of artists who wait on tables 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 centres,” 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, Delaware, 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 hospitalisation facilities that cannot accommodate a rise in potential illnesses.. . . #stayathome means just that!”

“People are leaving populated areas and they’re coming to their second homes here,” said Paul Kuhns, the mayor of Rehoboth Beach, Maryland, 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, Florida, 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, Virginia, 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 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.”