17 ways Covid hit fast forward on the future

Before the Covid-19 pandemic began its deadly spread more than 18 months ago, the country seemed to be on the cusp of a future that might be defined by new uses of digital technology, by the ability of the internet to bridge physical distances and artificial intelligence to expand resources. That future was arriving, inexorably but not as speedily as many wanted.

Then the coronavirus demanded we change the patterns of our lives overnight, forcing millions to stay in their homes for months on end and reordering the usual ways of commerce, work and education. Suddenly, we needed those technology-driven innovations not soon, but now.

What followed was a wave of pandemic-driven innovation that few could have predicted. Amid all the death and heartbreak, Covid-19 also hit fast-forward on the future.

For the past year, POLITICO has been chronicling these changes, from cities to states to the federal government, as part of our Recovery Lab project. One thing we’ve noticed is that many of these pandemic innovations, while birthed in crisis and adopted temporarily, increasingly look like they are here to stay.

So as we wind up this year of coverage, we asked POLITICO reporters to identify the pandemic-induced policy innovations that have changed life in America over the last year and a half. Many not only helped millions weather the pandemic, they in some cases solved other problems that had long defied solutions. All are likely to stick around after the pandemic subsides.

Here are 17 ways Covid spurred innovation in America, mostly for the better.

Cocktails-to-go

Background: After the Prohibition era ended in 1933, most states enacted laws against selling alcohol for consumption off-premises with the aim of reducing public drunkenness. Up until the pandemic, most restaurants simply weren’t thinking about changing the rules.

What changed during the pandemic: As lockdowns were imposed nationwide, struggling restaurants looked for ways to keep revenue flowing in. Alcohol is a high-margin item for many establishments, and as restaurants shifted to focus on takeout, they asked cities and states to allow them to also provide cocktails-to-go. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, 35 states plus the District of Columbia adopted ordinances allowing the sale of cocktails-to-go.

Why it will stick: The change proved popular with restaurants and consumers alike. So far, 16 states plus D.C. have made the to-go rule permanent. — Hannah Farrow

Making cannabis essential

Background: The movement to loosen cannabis laws has been chipping away at the state level ever since California first legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Now, 18 states have legalized adult-use marijuana and 36 have legalized medical cannabis. But these programs sit in a strange legal limbo — highly regulated in states, but still federally illegal.

What changed during the pandemic: The cannabis industry got a boost of legitimacy in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, as state after state declared cannabis businesses “essential,” allowing them to stay open during lockdowns. Only one state — Massachusetts — ordered its dispensaries to close its doors. The essential business designation often came with a whole host of temporary regulatory changes — for instance, some states started allowing marijuana home delivery and curbside pickup for the first time. Many of those states are now moving to make those changes permanent.

Why it will stick: The move toward increased accessibility is a boon for medical marijuana patients, many of whom suffer from conditions that limit their mobility. Recreational consumers — now increasingly buying everything from groceries to mattresses online — are also welcoming cannabis e-commerce. — Mona Zhang

Telehealth

Background: Telehealth — visiting with a doctor or other medical professional over video or another type of remote connection — has long been touted as a way to expand access to health care. But before the pandemic, adoption was low and Medicare allowed telehealth access only for patients in rural areas.

What changed during the pandemic: When the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep the country, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services eased regulations on telehealth use to permit patients to access health care from home to reduce the spread of the virus. Much of that new flexibility is still in place. States also made a number of policy changes to expand access.

Why it will stick: Virtual care has been widely popular, prompting private insurers and providers to increase investments in telehealth and other remote technologies. As states have reopened, telehealth usage has leveled off at a rate well above pre-pandemic levels, signaling that a significant number of patients prefer virtual care in some circumstances. CMS recently extended many telehealth flexibilities through 2023. — Ben Leonard

Hotels to housing

Background: The number of people living on the streets or in tent encampments was surging before the pandemic, rising more than 30 percent since 2015. The increase in tent encampments had already caused health scares in places like Los Angeles, and initial estimates indicated Covid-19 would cause thousands of homeless deaths in the street. Officials feared that emergency group shelters — the kind FEMA has traditionally thrown up in the wake of natural disasters — would become vectors for spreading the virus.

What changed during the pandemic: Two factors came together to provide a new solution. First, hotel occupancy plunged when the pandemic brought travel to a standstill. Second, state and federal policymakers worried about the spread of Covid were willing to spend money on moving homeless people into private hotel rooms. They were able to lease — and eventually purchase — hotels at discount prices and convert them into housing.

Why it will stick: Converting empty hotels to housing has been a game-changer for cities and states grappling with rising homelessness. It will take years for hotels to return to pre-Covid occupancy rates; the American Hotel & Lodging Association doesn’t expect the industry to recover from the pandemic until 2024. What’s more, plenty of independent hotels were struggling even before the onset of the pandemic, thanks to the rise of Airbnb, so using excess hotel space to help solve a problem driven in part by a lack of affordable housing makes economic sense. — Katy O’Donnell

mRNA vaccines

Background: While traditional vaccines work by injecting a weakened version of a virus to prompt a patient’s immune response, mRNA vaccines are more direct, sending just the instructions to a patient’s cells to produce an immune response without including the virus itself. Scientists have tried for decades to harness the natural molecules in messenger RNA to produce vaccines, but struggled with making synthetic RNA that the body would allow to spread and instruct cells.

What changed during the pandemic: The mRNA technology allowed pharmaceutical companies to move very fast to develop vaccines. Moderna developed a working model for an mRNA coronavirus vaccine within days of receiving the virus sequence, followed swiftly by Pfizer/BioNTech, and both teams figured out a way to tackle the immune response problem. Those two shots became the first authorized Covid-19 vaccines and the first-ever mRNA products to hit the market, soaring past expectations for how quickly the public would get a workable coronavirus vaccine and how effective it would be. Most vaccines take years to develop — these were on the market within a year. That speed will also allow the manufacturers to more quickly adapt the vaccines as the virus mutates.

Why it will stick: That speed and flexibility meant the two mRNA shots became the backbone of U.S. vaccination efforts, outpacing vaccines based on more traditional technology. Manufacturers are already applying the technology to develop vaccines for other diseases and even different treatment uses. — Sarah Owermohle

Robot deliveries

Background: For about a decade, robotic companies have tried to popularize the use of mobile robots that travel on the sidewalk at the speed of a jogging pedestrian, primarily to deliver food from restaurants to residential customers. The technology, however, failed to catch on due to a small delivery market and wariness of robot interactions — until the pandemic hit.

What changed during the pandemic: When Covid-19 first hit and people were still unsure of how the virus was transmitted, demand for socially distanced services sky-rocketed. As delivery services became particularly popular — the market doubled during the pandemic — the potential of a completely contactless transaction through robots drew the attention of small business owners like Ji Hye Kim, founder of Miss Kim, a restaurant that used robot delivery in Ann Arbor, Mich. “We were told to stay at home and social distance. So just this idea that we were dealing with fewer human contact became suddenly very attractive,” she said. Since then, the technology has seen a drastic surge in popularity. Starship Technologies, one of the early pioneers of delivery robots pre-pandemic, now deploys over 1,000 robots across the country, which is nearly quadruple the number they started off with before the pandemic, and accomplishes about 10,000 deliveries a day. The only challenge the company is facing is manufacturing robots fast enough to meet demand, according to Ryan Tuohy, Starship’s senior vice president of business development and sales.

Why it will stick: Robotic companies believe robots are the future of delivery services because they are far more efficient than cars, said Ali Kashani, CEO of Serve Robotics: “Two-pound burritos are being moved in 2-ton cars. That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. Since robots are smaller and use less fuel, they are a more sustainable and economical option compared to automobiles. “I think that there’s a very friendly and fun future in which robots help us perhaps reshape our cities into much more greener and more pedestrian and human-friendly environments,” Kashani said. — Catherine Kim

Optional college exams

Background: Institutions of higher learning have long required applicants to submit standardized test scores, believing that performance on the SAT or ACT was a reliable indicator of first-year college success. Critics had long argued that the tests disadvantaged students of color and first-generation college students.

What changed during the pandemic: The testing companies had to cancel the tests in the spring of 2020 since it was suddenly dangerous for students to sit together in testing sites to take the exams. As a result, hundreds of colleges and universities across the country that had previously required the exams temporarily adopted a test-optional admissions policy. Only 1.5 million students in the high school class of 2021 took the SAT, down from 2.2 million in the class of 2020. The ACT saw a 22 percent drop in test takers.

Why it will stick: Many colleges and universities found that the test-optional policies contributed to increases in applications from students of color and first-generation college students, particularly to highly selective colleges, suggesting that ACT and SAT scores had been a barrier that prevented them from even applying. Several institutions, including New York University, reported boosts of tens of thousands of applications for first-year undergraduate admission. Now many colleges, including the elite University of California system, have eliminated their SAT and ACT mandates. — Bianca Quilantan

Direct cash assistance

Background: For decades, the idea of giving Americans government benefits in the form of cash has been somewhat frowned upon. Instead, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have generally preferred to provide government assistance in kind, like food stamps or health care coverage. The general concern was that recipients would misspend cash.

What changed during the pandemic: When the economy shut down in spring 2020, Congress moved to keep the economy afloat by doling out unprecedented levels of direct cash assistance to millions of Americans in the form of stimulus checks that recipients could spend however they needed. A year into the pandemic, lawmakers approved child tax credit payments, giving families with children historic levels of aid. That money helped keep food insecurity from going up even as the bottom fell out of the economy. And tracking by the U.S. Census bureau indicated that the benefits tended to pay for the things that lawmakers wanted them to pay for, particularly food and other household needs.

Why it will stick: Whether child tax credits will be extended remains to be seen. During the next big crisis, however, chances are good that Congress will again turn to direct aid, which is far quicker and easier to administer than in-kind benefits. The economy has bounced back much more quickly than most expected, and the cash from Washington is credited for much of that. — Helena Bottemiller Evich

Online education

Background: Online education has been around for decades, but it’s long been stigmatized as inferior to in-person instruction. Many traditional brick-and-mortar college campuses have been relatively slow to embrace virtual learning on a significant scale.

What changed during the pandemic: As Covid restrictions began in March 2020, thousands of colleges were forced to close classrooms and shift to online-only instruction in just a matter of days or weeks. The unprecedented transition was haphazard, and some students sued their colleges for refunds. The shift also raised equity concerns about the ability of the most vulnerable students, who needed technology, broadband access and study space to attend classes. Indeed, some of the billions of Covid relief that Congress approved went to help colleges transition their courses online and help students buy the technology they needed to participate.

Why it will stick: Higher education won’t return to the all-online chaotic spring 2020 semester. But the forced adoption of online learning has accelerated a trend of traditional universities developing online degree programs and normalized hybrid models of teaching even among the most change-resistant parts of higher education, potentially increasing access for students in remote areas or who face other barriers to in-person education. — Michael Stratford

QR codes

Background: QR codes —the black and white squares of computer code that are increasingly ubiquitous — have existed since the mid-1990s. The QR stands for “quick response,” and they can transmit more data than barcodes but were rarely used on consumer products prior to the pandemic.

What changed during the pandemic: The popularity of these scannable, touchless codes surged in the months following the initial 2020 lockdowns as the world began opening back up, according to link shortener Bitly. By that summer, restaurants and bars began opening their doors but still sought to socially distance to limit the spread of the virus. As a result, the QR code began appearing on dining tables as a way for patrons to summon up menus and often order straight from their phone. Changes in technology also made using these codes much easier for the average consumer. Although people once needed third-party applications on their smartphones to tap into the codes, in recent years iPhone owners are able to simply point their cameras straight at the codes to activate them.

Why it will stick: The convenience factor of QR codes seems likely to keep their use going in many restaurants, bars and elsewhere, especially now that people are used to the idea of pulling up the codes on their phone. Businesses get to cut down on the amount of staff time devoted to each customer, while some consumers may appreciate the freedom to order at will and the simplicity of making individual orders. “With a digital ordering system, guests can order as soon as they’re ready, which makes them more likely to get an additional round of drinks,” restaurant ordering platform Toast promises, touting business benefits ranging from saving on menu printing to luring patrons into email marketing lists. This innovation still proves divisive — some customers may struggle to pull up the codes or not have smartphones at all, while others may lament sitting down to a table full of friends immediately staring into their phones. And the shift also raises new questions around consumers’ data privacy, as businesses seize on new ways to track people’s information and target them using refined analytics. Proponents including Bitly and Toast are bullish, however, and quick to tout other new uses, from adding QR codes to wedding invites in place of RSVP cards or next to artwork in museums. — John Hendel

“Warp Speed” government investing

Background: In classic capitalist economics, the private sector funds innovation and then reaps the rewards from new products. But during the pandemic, the government stepped in: In May 2020, former President Donald Trump announced Operation Warp Speed — an $18 billion effort to accelerate the development, manufacture and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in the U.S. “There’s no way that the venture capitalists and the pharma companies and the investors were up to the ability to mobilize the kind of resources that were needed in the pandemic,” James Robinson, director of the Berkeley Center for Health Technology, explained. “It was a complete failure of the classical model. There was too much risk.”

What changed during the pandemic: With Covid fatalities mounting, the government couldn’t afford to go through its typical bureaucratic funding process. Instead, it took a venture capital-esque approach and pumped money into virtually unknown technologies, pre-funding eight vaccine candidates — a stark contrast from the typical method of waiting to invest until data is available and picking the best contenders. The effort allowed the companies to simultaneously build out strategy, manufacturing and logistics, a process not often found in the commercial market. “It wasn’t the government saying they could do this alone,” said David Shulkin, former secretary of Veterans Affairs, who worked with President Joe Biden on the 2016 Cancer Moonshot initiative. “Government reached out to industry and said, ‘We want to help provide an accelerated way of doing discovery and to bring to the commercial market.’”

Why it will stick: Getting a vaccine to market can take upward of a decade, but Operation Warp Speed developed and commercialized Covid-19 vaccines in just about a year. Now, Biden is hoping to launch a multibillion-dollar Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to partner with the private sector to speed up the time it takes to develop health innovations in high-need areas and could be adopted to other fields. “Imagine if we did this for climate change? Imagine if we did this for substance abuse, for suicide prevention?” Shulkin said. “These are problems that, quite frankly, the traditional approaches haven’t given us the advances.” — Madison Fernandez

Free school meals — for everyone

Background: Students who are hungry don’t learn well, so K-12 students who meet federal household income guidelines have long had access to free and reduced meals at school. But many students who qualify don’t actually sign up: Immigrant families may be fearful of government paperwork, and students who fear “lunch shaming” don’t take advantage of the program. Prior to the pandemic, school officials also complained that the federal income limits were too low and don’t take into account the high cost of living in some states.

What changed during the pandemic: When schools abruptly shut down due to Covid-19, it was clear that it wasn’t just learning that students were missing — many were going hungry. School officials across the country scrambled to distribute bag lunches any way they could and to anyone who wanted them — the paperwork typically required to prove students qualify for free or reduced price meals became more trouble than it was worth amid mass school closures. As part of its Covid relief efforts, the federal government also agreed to reimburse schools for free meals to all students regardless of income through this current school year to solve the problem. Now, districts across the U.S. have decided to continue providing free meals to all students, regardless of need, and some states, including California and Maine, are implementing the policy statewide starting next year. While cities such as New York and Chicago already offered universal free meals to students, the new statewide plans are the first in the nation.

Why it will stick: In many states, a majority of students already qualify for free and reduced-price meals, making whatever increase to cost worth it, especially since it means the end of bureaucratic hoops local school workers have to jump through to validate eligibility. In some cases, a universal meals policy may not be much of a cost increase at all, since schools sometimes have to absorb unpaid meal debts as part of their operating costs. “Free school meals for all is based on a simple yet powerful premise: Our public schools are free for any child to attend, so every student should also have access to free and healthy meals made from locally grown food,” said California Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland), who wrote legislation that inspired the California policy. — Mackenzie Mays

Netflix for jobs

Background: Although unemployment rates have sunk closer to pre-pandemic levels, they don’t capture the full employment picture. In October, there were 2.3 million people who qualified as long-term unemployed, meaning they had been jobless for at least 27 weeks, many of them let go during the pandemic. That’s 1.2 million more than in February 2020. Meanwhile, the employment and training programs available to unemployed workers — there are no fewer than 43 spread across the government — are uncoordinated and underfunded, employers, unions and lawmakers say.

What changed during the pandemic: A nonprofit-led effort collaborated with Rhode Island state officials to use artificial intelligence and unemployment insurance data to match unemployed workers with training programs and new jobs, based on their work experience and which industries are expanding in their state. Former Rhode Island Labor Director Scott Jensen described it as “Netflix for Jobs.” The program launched in Rhode Island using federal funding and has since expanded to Hawaii. Jensen now works with RIPL, the nonprofit that runs it, which has agreements to expand the program to Washington, Colorado and New Jersey.

Why it will stick: Using AI to help match workers to job opportunities has proven to be an effective way to help workers reenter the labor market, something increasingly critical as the existing worker shortage intensifies. — Eleanor Mueller

“Streateries”

Background: Before the pandemic, outdoor dining space tended to be a low priority, both for city officials and restaurant owners, especially in densely populated urban areas. A lack of street space, high rents, prioritized parking and strict zoning rules left most restaurants with little incentive and few options for serving patrons outdoors.

What changed during the pandemic: After public health officials learned that Covid spread easily indoors but not readily outdoors, al fresco dining space became critical to reopening local establishments. Cities eased rules to allow restaurants to expand outdoor seating areas to nearby parking spots, sidewalks and streets. Some eateries built intricate outdoor oases with lighting and plants while others attempted to winterize small enclosures with heaters and blankets.

Why it will stick: The outdoor spaces provided a lifeline to many eating and drinking establishments during the pandemic, and restaurants are hoping their “streateries” will help them weather any new spikes in virus levels without being forced to shutter. Long-term regulations are still being worked out in many regions, though. Some city officials are now seeking to remove the outdoor areas and some places, such as New York City, are worried that food remnants are attracting rodents. But the “streateries” proved so popular in other localities, including Tampa and Philadelphia, that many cities are considering ways to make them permanent. — Meredith Lee

Voting by mail

Background: Voting via the mail has been around in the United States for decades. And while it has seen a slow and steady increase in usage, until the pandemic most Americans chose to vote in-person on Election Day.

What changed during the pandemic: A pandemic that made many Americans fearful of packing together in one location — such as a polling place — led to a rapid adoption of voting via the mail, and some states expanded their mail voting systems on a temporary basis because of the virus. In 2020, a record high 46 percent of Americans cast a mail ballot, according to MIT Election Data + Science Lab, up from just 21 percent in 2016. Combined with the 26 percent of voters who cast a ballot early in-person (also a record), this was the first time in modern presidential election history that a majority of Americans did not vote in person on Election Day.

Why it will stick: Mail voting was not without its speedbumps: The rapid switch to the practice sometimes overwhelmed underfunded and overworked election officials, because it is significantly more labor intensive than someone showing up at a polling place. And now-former President Donald Trump seized on the slow processing of mail ballots in some battleground states to spread conspiracy theories about the election[RH1]. But most mail voters reported being satisfied with the process, and election officials across the country expect at least some of the coronavirus-fueled gains for the method to stick. Some states that did not previously allow for all voters to choose to cast a mail ballot under normal circumstances have now moved to make that permanent, while three states — California, Vermont and Nevada — have moved to a universal vote-by-mail system after the pandemic, meaning all active registered voters in those states will be mailed ballots automatically for at least some elections. — Zach Montellaro

“Zooming”

Background: Video calls’ popularity shot up in the early 2010s with the iPhone 4’s FaceTime capability, and videoconferencing had already started outpacing conference calls in many workplaces prior to 2020. But even though Zoom Video Communications was founded in 2011, “Zoom” didn’t become a common verb in the style of “Google” until the pandemic hit.

What changed during the pandemic: As work from home became a necessity in spring 2020 due to lockdowns, many workplaces turned to Zoom or other video conferencing systems to facilitate meetings that once took place in person. And it wasn’t just offices — video conferencing over the internet became a key form of communication for schools, for job interviews and even for “happy hours” with now-separated friend groups. Professor Jonathan Sterne of McGill University said videoconferencing technologies were already used by many people with disabilities prior to Covid-19, but “overnight, things that were well-known in the disability community to be technically possible, suddenly were also socially possible in workplaces that had previously refused it.” And despite the availability of other video conferencing sites such as Microsoft Teams and Skype, Zoom was especially popular during the pandemic, in part because it’s designed to work in low-bandwidth environments like homes and cars.

Why it will stick: The pandemic showed offices and employees that work from home is possible and, for some workers, preferable. According to Pew Research Center, more than half of American employees who can work from home said they’d like to continue to do so all or most of the time post-pandemic. And now that people know about the possibilities of videoconferencing, Arwen Mohun of the Society for the History of Technology says, “I think the conference call is dead.” — Maeve Sheehey

“Silent” restaurant service

Background: Traditionally, “service with a smile” was a trademark of the U.S. restaurant industry, a sector that relies heavily on tips from happy customers to subsidize its labor force. Under U.S. wage law, employers can pay workers who earn more than $30 a week in tips as little as $2.13 an hour, so workers are incentivized to interact cheerfully with customers.

What changed during the pandemic: That kind of interaction with customers became significantly riskier during the early days of the pandemic when public health experts were still learning about the virus. Lockdowns meant that restaurants were working with less staff and relying largely on carry-out sales. Once states started easing restrictions, public health authorities instructed restaurants to use disposable or virtual menus and take other steps to limit contact. Restaurants soon found that sending customers directly to a website or using QR codes to access menus meant they could operate with fewer staff. Some businesses have embraced what’s become known as “silent service,” where customers place and pay for their order on their phone, with little interaction from service staff.

Why it will stick: Serving and bartending jobs are unlikely to disappear, but with restaurants still struggling to find workers, many will continue to operate with fewer staff. Another reason is that transitioning servers to other roles and using QR codes and mobile ordering in-store provides an extra layer of protection for staff from the dangers that come along with public-facing jobs — including exposure to Covid-19 and unruly or violent customers. — Rebecca Rainey

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