The mass migration to escape the coronavirus may contain the seeds of permanent change

Lisa Pezzino brushes her teeth at her retreat. She and Kit Center left home with four days of clothing and intended to return soon.

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 neighbor. 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 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. Some middle aged people have been heading to their parents' retirement communities.

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.

As President Donald Trump's administration develops a national ranking of counties as high-, mediumor 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-fromhome policies and figure that maybe they do not need to spend as much on pricey downtown office space.

"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, 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 hospitalization 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."

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. 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 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 issued stricter stayat-home orders.

The temporary dislocation 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, went to 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, Illinois, 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, including: "Not everything needs to be a family activity."

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