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Pandemic exodus from big cities was short-lived

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Apartment buildings and high-rises are set against the New York City skyline, including the Empire State Building.

"In the case of Manhattan, it went from a big domestic out-migration to a slight in-migration," said demographer William Frey. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Data released by the Census Bureau on Thursday shows where people moved last year. The Sun Belt is still extremely popular. That trend started well before the pandemic and only accelerated when COVID-19 hit. But another pandemic trend of people leaving big, coastal cities in droves now looks like it might have been just a blip.  

Remember those first eerie months when New York and other big cities were emptying out? And after that, the talk that people would never come back? 

Well, “there seems to be a return — not a huge return,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

There doesn’t seem to have been a big exodus either. “In San Francisco, there’s still a population loss, but only a tiny one, compared to a very significant one” the previous year, he said. “But in the case of Manhattan, it went from a big domestic out-migration to a slight in-migration.”

There were similar trends in other city centers too — in Seattle, Denver and Dallas.

Two main things are going on, per Frey: For one, fewer Americans are leaving these cities. “Then in addition, there’s been a big increase from immigration from abroad,” he said.

Three years into the pandemic, though, Nicholas Bloom at Stanford University said he finds it striking there hasn’t been a bigger reversal. 

“The pace of leaving has slowed down, but we’re definitely not returning. And that tells you that work from home is here to stay,” Bloom said.

At least a couple of days a week — and that’s enough to change where people live, he said. “Think of, you know, classic bankers, techies, managers — they don’t need to come into the office five days a week. So they’re thinking, you know, why not move out to the suburbs?”

That’s one pandemic trend that’s persisting, he added. Another is people’s desire to live in warm, sunny places, according to Luke Rogers at the Census Bureau.

“Of the top 10 fastest-growing counties in the country, all of them were in the South or in the West, and a big chunk of them were in Texas,” Rogers said.

The rest were in Arizona and Florida.

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