Where We Are on the Path Back to "Normal Life" Post-COVID

We're now more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and, with the number of vaccinations increasing and the number of COVID cases on the decline, people are eagerly looking forward to getting back to "normal life" as summer approaches. But, what does "normal life" currently look like as we compare it to this time a year ago when things started to lock down? Did behavior really change? Which types of businesses were able to hold strong?

The clear winner in our study is the food delivery industry, which actually thrived during the course of the pandemic. Hotels and Airbnb businesses had their ups-and-downs, but are well on the road to recovery, as are ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber. That said, businesses in which patrons tend to gather indoors with strangers – such as gyms, dining-in at restaurants, and movie theatres are, not surprisingly, recovering at a much, much, slower rate.

More details about each category and the journey they've had over the course of the past year, and where they are on the path back to "normal life" can be found below.

People wearing face masks in a movie theater

Introduction

As we get vaccinated and things begin to open up again, herd immunity becomes a possibility and third waves are being assessed, we thought it would be of interest to plot the touchpoints through the pandemic and see how we are behaving compared to before.

Methodology

For this study, we leveraged the Embee panel of 100,000 mobile users in the US. We looked at the app usage and visits to brick and mortar locations since the start of 2020.

For apps, the measure we used was weekly incidence: what proportion of the panel used the app at least once in the week.

For branded locations, we used the number of visits per thousand panelists per week: the average number of times that a panelist went to the location.

Food Delivery

Food delivery recorded a lift in app usage as lockdown measures were introduced. UberEats and GrubHub were enjoying around a 2-2.5% weekly incidence before the pandemic struck, while DoorDash enjoyed a 3.5-4% incidence. In the week of 3/15/20, all services saw an increase in usage as Covid media started and continued to rise through to late April before trailing off.

From May to December 2020, all three apps dropped from the April peak, but maintained weekly users above their respective pre-pandemic levels, though GrubHub suffered, as discussed in our blog The Drubbing of Grubhub: Could it have been predicted?.

The New Year saw heightened use for all three companies and 2021 has seen all three companies rise; but comparing the start of 2020, where GrubHub and UberEats had the same weekly incidence, and DoorDash had about 1.5x their incidence, DoorDash has leaped away with double the weekly user incidence than UberEats, and GrubHub has hardly capitalized on people being stuck at home.

Food delivery app incidence through the pandemic

Restaurant Visits

The impact of Covid on the restaurant industry is widely reported in the media. Embee records people in points of interest, such as restaurants and coffee shops, and records the amount of time spent.

We chose to segment the time spent according to visits of less than 20 minutes, which we suggest are accounting for takeouts; visits between 20 minutes and 3 hours, which likely represent dine-in; and visits over 3 hours which likely represent other purposes, though we have excluded staff where possible.

March 2020 saw a substantial drop in visits, especially in the middle category where visits dropped from 700 per thousand per week down to 300 per thousand per week. Dine-in gradually rose during the summer, but to lower levels than before the pandemic. As fall arrived, dine-in declined gradually again before starting to pick up in mid-February 2021.

A more optimistic picture is painted of takeout (in red). While there was a drop in March 2020, short visits to restaurants rose in April and maintained steady throughout summer, and then increased as dine-in decreased during the fall and winter. By mid-February 2021, short visits increased even more.

Eatery visits through the pandemic

Ride-Hailing

People staying at home has made 2020 a bad year for ride-hailing apps. Uber and Lyft started 2020 with similar weekly users and ended with Uber having a slight advantage over Lyft.

Both companies saw a steep change in usage starting in the week of 3/15, from over 4% to around 2.5%. This reduced weekly incidence remained fairly steady throughout the rest of 2020 and in January and February 2021, but there is evidence of recovery starting in March 2021.

Ride hailing app incidence through the pandemic

Navigation

The reduction in the need to get around has also been affected by lockdown. Here, we look at Google Maps (red line, left axis) and Waze (blue line, right axis). These apps are not directly competitive: Google Maps is used for looking up places, navigation when walking or cycling as well as driving; while Waze is only used for driving.

Starting on March 15, 2020, both saw substantial reductions in usage, with Waze experiencing a greater reduction as would be expected. Both recovered somewhat peaking in July 2020, before declining in usage fairly steadily until Valentine's Day.

Since mid-February 2021, there are signs that people are out and about. Both Waze and Google Maps are seeing increases in usage.

Navigation app incidence through the pandemic

Travel and Tourism

The travel and tourism industry has been hard hit by Covid if the media is to be believed, but such disastrous trends are not seen in the incidences of app usage.

March 2020 did see a substantial reduction in usage of the four travel booking services we looked at, but within a month, the drop in usage had bottomed out and started to rise. By the summer, usage increased but did not exceed January and February incidences as we'd have expected in a non-Covid year.

In particular, Airbnb rose to high levels, which we account for regarding hotel vs. longer-term house rentals are backed up in an industry report that was featured in both the New York Times and USA Today.

Travel booking apps through the pandemic

People staying in Hotels and Motels is another indicator of the damage and recovery to the Hotel and Motel industry. Embee's data captures the activity of panelists appearing within points of interest and records how long they were there.

We have segmented the time spent per person by filtering people who were at the point of interest for less than 3 hours (and who were not likely to be overnight guests) against those who were there for 3-8 hours and more than 8 hours, who were likely to be guests.

Hotel and motel visits dropped in March 2020, but soon recovered, exceeding pre-pandemic levels during the summer. While late 2020 was lower than late 2019, the levels we see are not significantly less; and visits in March are increasing already to levels seen in Summer 2020.

Hotel and Motel stays through the pandemic

Movie Theaters

Movie theaters took a heavy hit during the pandemic, and their recovery is looking more nascent than other industries. This may be because new film production has been hampered by lockdown restrictions, but also because of the recent trend to release movies straight to streaming.

Embee's data captures the presence of panelists in points of interest, including movie theaters, and the time spent. We segmented the time spent according to visits less than 2 hours (which likely didn't involve seeing a movie); visits between 2 and 3 hours (which likely were related to seeing a movie); and more than 3 hours (which likely meant seeing a movie and engaging in other activities).

Visits to movie theaters among the second two groups (who likely saw a movie) plummeted in March 2020, as many closed. While there's some evidence of modest recovery from August 2020, the levels are highly muted compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Whether movie theaters recover is a widely debated topic, but the last data point in our series, representing the week starting 3/28/21 shows an increase. We shall see whether this is the start of moviegoers heading back to the theatre on a regular basis or an anomaly.

Movie Theater visits through the pandemic

Gyms

Gyms were heavily hit by Covid, but are showing slow recovery.

We segmented gym visits by visit length: visits less than 40 minutes likely represent visits for classes or short workouts, but may include other uses; visits between 40 minutes and 2 hours likely represent gym sessions, and visits over 2 hours likely represent team sports or other activities.

March 2020 saw a significant drop in visits in all categories, with time spent between 40 minutes and 2 hours declining 80%. Visits of this length gradually increased until June to about half the pre-pandemic levels before staying there.

Unlike other industries we've looked at, however, there isn't much evidence that gyms have recovered since then.

Gym visits through the pandemic