“It has had an impact on everything about me,” said the Griffin resident and mother of three children.
“My overall livelihood is definitely better. I am not spending money on unnecessary things,” added Godsey, a manager at PadSplit, which arranges shared space for renters and whose employees have been working remotely since March 2020.
The larger economy has shifted, too, nationally and in Georgia, pushed by changes in behavior by tens of millions of consumers who have spent their money and time differently as COVID-19 upended daily life.
The coronavirus has killed more than 900,000 Americans and saddled millions of others with lingering symptoms. In its economic wake, some businesses were battered, some were bolstered and the values of labor and loyalty were suddenly in flux.
In many ways the economy has proven resilient.
After more than a year of sometimes frenetic growth, the number of jobs in Georgia is finally back to pre-pandemic levels. Nationally, hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency government spending have saved many businesses and people from bankruptcy.
By some measures the economy is stronger. The country’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic growth, expanded 10% last year, more than double the pace of 2019. Consumer spending rose.
Some people are wealthier. The S&P 500, a broad-based stock index, is up about 27% from its pre-pandemic level, despite a decline since December. Home prices soared more than 20% last year in metro Atlanta.
That propelled spending on renovations and repairs, a boon to contractors, but also to companies like Home Depot. Sales at the Vinings-based retailer surged 14% last year, topping $150 billion for the first time.
Wages and salaries are generally up, too. Average pay is rising at an annual pace of more than 5%, according to the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank.
In other ways, though, the economy is weaker and more vulnerable. Labor and materials shortages have slowed the production and transport of goods, fanning inflation. U.S. consumer prices rose 7% last year, eclipsing wage increases. Many people who don’t own stocks or homes are worse off today.
And that was before Russia invaded Ukraine, sending gas prices at the pump soaring in Georgia and injecting fresh uncertainty into where the economy is headed next.
What is clear, though, is that the local economy is very different than in early 2020:
- Many companies sent workers home when the pandemic began. Many have continued to work remotely and might never fully return to offices. Workers who don’t go to the office don’t hit restaurants for lunch or bars after work.
- Consumers afraid of a deadly virus spend less money on gyms, theater, concerts and in-person services like hair salons. Instead they spend more on goods — treadmills, televisions, pressure cookers, pajamas — that often can be delivered to their homes.
- People whose business events have been canceled — or are being done on Zoom — don’t book airline flights, shop in airport malls, rent cars or stay in hotels.
All those choices are reflected in consumer spending and hiring. So even though the total number of jobs may be the same as before the pandemic, the mix has changed.
The surge of online ordering accompanied a shift in spending from services to goods, which spurred hiring in logistics — the business of moving, storing and delivering physical things.
Overall, Georgia has about 9% more truckers than before the pandemic. Revenue has skyrocketed at Sandy Springs-based package delivery giant UPS. At the Port of Savannah, hundreds of workers have been added and a massive expansion is underway. Over the past four years, metro Atlanta’s warehouse space expanded by 16%.
Where Georgians spend their food dollars also has changed. About 15% more goes to groceries than before the pandemic, according to the Opportunity Tracker compiled by Harvard University researchers.
In contrast, spending in restaurants and hotels is down 23%.
Before the pandemic, the state had about 19,000 restaurants employing about a half-million workers. About 4,000 of those restaurants have closed for good, while others rely on takeout business, with about 90,000 fewer workers overall, according to Karen Bremer, chief executive of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
“Most of the restaurant industry has tight margins as it is. Now, most every restaurateur says they are doing less business than before,” Bremer said.
John Metz, co-owner of the 20-location Marlow’s Tavern chain, said his restaurants are edging back toward pre-pandemic revenues. But the already thin profit margins have narrowed even more.
He said food costs are up “a couple percent” and labor 10% to 15% more expensive. The shift of many restaurants to takeout meant soaring demand for items like to-go boxes, doubling or tripling the cost of those supplies.
“That is a big hit to the bottom line,” Metz said.
In Atlanta, hospitality has historically been a key component in the economy, largely because the city is a transit hub. So the lack of business and personal travel hurts more than eateries.
The number of Georgians working in the air transport sector is still 8% below pre-pandemic levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines doesn’t foresee business rebounding fully until next year.
Among the sectors with strong hiring the past six months were corporate jobs, especially in tech, and government, logistics and manufacturing jobs. Hospitals, which were especially stressed during the pandemic, have also been hiring.
In contrast, construction, as well as leisure and hospitality, have shed jobs.
The economy could look even more different in the coming months. Inflation, especially the burden of higher oil prices, could take an even bigger bite out of paychecks. Yet another COVID-19 variant could hurt growth. The Federal Reserve could raise interest rates high enough to choke spending.
And Russia’s war against Ukraine could spin out of control in painful and unpredictable ways.
But at least at this moment, two years into the pandemic, there are reasons both financial and psychological to be upbeat, said Godsey.
She’s not spending $10 or more on lunch each day, not filling the gas tank of her Kia Soul several times a week, and she’s close to her children in case there’s a problem at school during the day.
“I am saving money now,” she said. “I can work at a coffee shop, I can work at the library. I am not sitting in traffic.”