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With some paths closed, our futures look more like home

Amy S. Rosenberg
The Philadelphia Inquirer
With travel limited during the pandemic, Americans are looking at the treasures to be found close to home.

PHILADELPHIA — For Joanne Edelstein of Philadelphia, no destination was too far or too complicated to consider, nothing out of reach to plan a trip, take her grandchildren. Lots of itineraries on the horizon.

But during these coronavirus days, Edelstein's own front steps can feel risky. A walk through her neighborhood involves zigzagging away from people.

Yet that zigzagging has brought her to streets she would not otherwise have walked down. And her family has discovered more simpler joys like fishing at the Jersey Shore.

Boundaries are everywhere now, a sobering change for farsighted adventurers like Edelstein, or for Cherry Hill native Galit Schwarz, a world traveler who ditched New York City this spring and moved full time to her house at the Jersey Shore, where she's throwing her energy into extremely local pleasures, like shucking oysters at Maxwell's, in Port Republic, Atlantic County.

But what do our lives look like under the microscope? And where will that take us? And who loses in a global reshuffling?

Writer, activist, and futurist comedian Baratunde Thurston has been talking a lot about a 5-year-old girl in his Los Angeles neighborhood who noticed his new turquoise-and-orange Under Armour cross-trainers and called out to him on one of the walks he's been taking since being essentially grounded by the coronavirus crisis.

"Baratunde, do you have new shoes?"

It struck him as profound, this small moment of civic decency, that "little neighbor girl was paying attention."

Thurston, host of the new How to Citizen podcast and a recent cohost of the Pivot podcast, spoke of her "in the spirit of getting to know the place where you live because what else are you going to do when you can't go anywhere else?"

"I think there are a lot of us feeling invisible right now without a proper response to a global pandemic," Thurston said in a phone interview.

"Within that crisis, others among us, Black people, have felt invisible for a long time. When we are noticed, it's for all the wrong reasons. Here was a little girl who noticed something about me that I was actually proud of. She knew that I belonged in this neighborhood."

Being familiar with one another, a state heightened by our collective coronavirus grounding, Thurston notes, can have far-reaching implications.

"A democracy is about people power," he said. "We need to know the people, the people around us, to be able to flex power."

Across the globe, population patterns are in flux as borders close and economic opportunities shrink. People are returning home, making homes in places they only visited occasionally, or being sent home and not allowed to cross borders.

"COVID-19 has created the worst of all possible disruptions: an almost complete global halt to human mobility," Erol Yayboke, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted in a recent study of the coronavirus' impact on global migration.

Those with options may be choosing to move out of population centers and into seasonal places.

High-end travelers are settling for, say, glamping in national parks, or villas on private islands, says Meredith Broder, a luxury travel designer based in Moorestown.

At the other end, though, options have vanished. Workers who relied on traveling to other locations to find economic lifelines — ranging from the Jersey Shore, where international students on J1 visas long have filled gaps in staffing, to India, where internal migration from villages to cities was halted — are no longer able. Also vanishing: the money sent back home — some $551 billion sent to low- and middle-income countries in 2019, according to data from the World Bank.

"What we have seen is that so far, people have gone home," Yayboke said. The toll could be lasting.

"It's an excuse to keep people out," Yayboke said. "It's much easier to erect barriers than to tear them down."

Broder, the travel consultant, thinks it will be years before people resume pre-COVID-19 travel habits, not so much because of the fear of getting sick, but because of the fear of getting stuck. The pulling up of the welcome mat has been jolting to clients unused to any global stop signs, she said.

"It's all how the rest of the world looks at the United States," Broder said. "We've gone from the most welcome passport to one of the least welcome."

Schwarz and others bringing their cosmopolitan energy into small and seasonal towns believe the places will benefit from their enthusiasm and economic votes of confidence.

"There's a lot of us," said Schwarz, a hospitality consultant. "I've been screaming this all over the place, trying to get all my friends to invest down here."

But can these towns handle it? What will the impact be on local schools and real estate? On the local culture?

Thurston worries about people with economic might muscling into new places, investing in their own interests, blotting out what came before. "Money always finds a way to move," Thurston notes.

Despite leaning in to pleasures closer to home, and being at last reunited with family this month for an extended stay on Long Beach Island, Edelstein, 70, says the coronavirus boundaries have weighed on her, especially as she confronts health issues and getting older.

Randy Rosen, 67, of Margate, also worries about time passing, with visits to grandchildren more regulated than the international trips she planned. "There's still destinations on our bucket list," Rosen says. "When will I get to them?"

It is a searing reality for those approaching the ultimate boundary: life's final chapters.

"It's wasted time," Edelstein said. "It's very frustrating. My world has become somewhat small and in my mind it's still big."