Few Minnesotans could have imagined in March 2020 that they'd still be feeling the effects of the pandemic on their daily lives three years later.
The most striking effects in the early days — empty freeways, closed stores and vacant office buildings — are not as obvious anymore.
But life isn't completely back to pre-pandemic normal. And maybe it never will be.
The freeways are busy again, but not quite as congested. Most students are back in the classroom, but remote learning is still more common than it was before 2020. Office workers are slowly making their way back to their desks, but hybrid schedules are probably here to stay. And millions of retail workers laid off during the early days of the pandemic now find themselves in high demand.
At the same time, life is still very altered for those who are immunocompromised or otherwise in danger from a virus that has killed more than 14,450 Minnesotans.
Everyone experienced these last three years a little differently, but, on the whole, the pandemic caused abrupt and unusual shifts in various aspects of everyday life — at home, at work, shopping, traveling.
The Star Tribune compiled data from various sources to help capture these changes and assess what has happened in the past three years. In some cases, we don't have current enough data to reflect what 2023 looks like, or even what happened in 2022. To be sure, there are dozens of topics we could have picked, but here are ones we found most interesting.
At the start of the pandemic, companies swiftly moved as many workers as they could to working from home. How many are still at home is a tough question to nail down, though.
The share of employed people in the metro area who said they were working from home in 2021 was about 20 percentage points higher than it had been before the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
The Twin Cities was among the top large metro areas with the highest work-from-home rates in 2021. Data for 2022 won't be available until September.
But that same data shows that working from home was a privilege that wasn't evenly distributed.
People who said they worked from home in the 2021 American Community Survey tended to be slightly older than other workers and had median earnings of more than $74,000. That's about $23,000 more than the overall median for the Twin Cities.
In addition, white and Asian workers were far more likely to have been able to work from home than other groups.
Various surveys and other data sources — such as freeway traffic and transit use — show that workers have gradually returned to their offices, especially once vaccines became available in early 2021.
Total available office space in downtown Minneapolis increased about a third from early 2020 to late 2022, according to data from commercial real estate firm CBRE, as companies moved into new buildings, shed unneeded space and otherwise adjusted to pandemic-era realities.
But office buildings are still less empty than at the pandemic's start. About two-thirds of the roughly 216,000 office employees who worked in downtown Minneapolis regularly in pre-pandemic years have returned as of February 2023.
Health care was transforming in Minnesota before the pandemic because of the demands of baby boomers and the increase in outpatient alternatives to hospital care. COVID-19 accelerated some trends and disrupted others, perhaps permanently.
Telemedicine usage increased over the past decade, and surged during the pandemic. The share of doctors, therapists and other providers who connect virtually with patients increased considerably.
Patients deferred non-emergency hospital care in 2020, either because they were scared of contracting COVID-19 or their providers suspended or limited operations. Hospital admissions bounced back in some areas in 2021, but sustained declines in orthopedics and obstetrics reflect more permanent shifts in how Minnesotans access care.
Shopping and dining
Everyday activities like shopping and dining changed significantly as businesses closed down across Minnesota.
Google tracked people's cellphone locations throughout the pandemic and compared those trends to the first two pre-pandemic months of 2020. The data shows visits to retail stores, including large shopping centers that might have other attractions, fell sharply at the pandemic's outset. That started to normalize in 2021. Grocery stores, which remained open as essential businesses, saw less significant declines.
Eating in restaurants virtually disappeared as the pandemic struck, according to data compiled by OpenTable that continues to track seated diners. But the number of restaurant patrons in Minnesota now more closely matches 2019 as the industry continues to recover.
Social distancing changed how and where Minnesotans traveled locally, nationally and globally. While traffic on Minnesota's roadways has roared back to normal levels, transit and air travel habits remain altered.
Pandemic restrictions, reduced service and shifts in work habits caused Metro Transit ridership on buses and trains to collapse in early 2020. Ridership hasn't fully recovered as many people continue working from home, at least part time, instead of regularly commuting.
The volume of monthly passengers arriving and departing from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport cratered in March 2020, according to data from the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Air travel started gradually returning by early 2021, but passenger counts are still lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Pandemic concerns caused Minnesota's calendar to empty rapidly as sporting matches, live music, festivals, movie showings and other big entertainment events vanished in a cascade of cancellations and delays. For instance, attendance at large-scale public events in downtown Minneapolis dropped from more than 9 million in 2019 to virtually nothing in 2020.
Since the state rolled back pandemic restrictions, attendance numbers at major downtown Minneapolis venues for sports, concerts, shows and other large public events have been rebounding.
Without fun outings at the height of the pandemic, Americans found other ways to pass the time.
The American Time Use Survey tracks how we spend every minute of the day, on average. The survey couldn't be completed in 2020 due to pandemic shutdowns, but the 2021 survey did show some changes from the pre-2020 norm, including a bump in time spent on relaxing and leisure activities and a dip in time spent working.
It's not surprising that in 2020, state parks — a great place to social distance —had their highest number of visitors of the decade. Since then, Minnesotans' enthusiasm for experiencing the outdoors has abated slightly, but state park visits are still up compared to before the pandemic.