Measuring the Economic Recovery from COVID-19 in Lehigh Valley

By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on August 4, 2020

LVEDC is monitoring new data to track the region’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and guide strategies for growth.

Unemployment rates. GDP. The Consumer Price Index.

Those reliable measurements, which are released monthly, quarterly, or annually, have become a bit dated amid the quick-changing economic conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Released even less frequently at a local level, the data do little to assess immediate geographic impacts during a downturn that has not hit all regions equally.

Over the last couple months, think tanks and market analysts have worked to harness the power of big data to gain real-time, economic insights. From online job ads to restaurant reservations, researchers are pouring over non-governmental data to assess the recovery with local precision. LVEDC is reviewing that research to better understand the real-time effects at the regional level.

“One of LVEDC’s important roles is to be a leading source of data and market intelligence on Lehigh Valley’s economy, assets, and resources,” said George Lewis, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. (LVEDC). “Since the pandemic, we’ve found that traditional economic metrics provide limited insight into what is happening day-to-day and week-to-week. It has led us to seek out and analyze new sources and new metrics to guide strategies that will continue our economic growth.”

Among them is Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit based at Harvard University. Researchers there are using anonymized data from private companies – credit card processors and payroll, for example – to track small business activity, consumer spending and more down to a county level and on a daily basis.

Small Businesses Slowly Reopen

Consider the economic activity in Lehigh Valley in June when pandemic-related restrictions were slowly removed. The monthly unemployment rate, which is expected to take time to recover, stagnated at 14% from May to June in Lehigh Valley and does little to inform what the policy impact of going “yellow” and then “green” had on small businesses, which makes up a lion’s share of the region’s employers.

Opportunity Insights analyzed aggregated financial transactions of those businesses to determine whether they were open and compares the data to a pre-pandemic baseline in January. While the number opened for business has not recovered, there are signs of overall improvement in Lehigh Valley.

The number of small businesses opened plummeted by mid-April to a low of 42.9% below the baseline in Northampton County and 45.8% below in Lehigh County. By early July, the number of businesses opened were down just .8% from the January baseline in Northampton and down 11.6% in Lehigh, according to Opportunity Insights.

Revenue from small business also showed signs of improvement since taking a deep dive this spring. In Northampton County, revenue went from being down 60% below the January baseline on March 29 to 10.3% above the baseline by July 15. Lehigh County went from a low of 55.8% below the baseline on March 30 to a high of 3.6% above the baseline on July 4.

Consumer spending in the Lehigh Valley is still down from January but is improving. Total spending, measured by credit and debit card purchases, was down 12.9% from the January baseline in Lehigh County and 5.4% in Northampton County on July 19.  That’s a big improvement over the low in early April of -36.6% in Lehigh and -36.7% in Northampton.

The Data Landscape

Opportunity Insights is just one of many new data sources LVEDC is using to track the impacts of COVID and the recovery. Here’s a rundown of what other metrics say about Lehigh Valley:

Initial Unemployment claims: The number of new unemployment claims in Lehigh Valley have dropped for four straight weeks, from 1,886 the week ending June 27 to 1,363 the week ending July 25, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Continuing Unemployment claims: The number of those seeking continued claims has not shown a steady improving trend over the past month. It has varied weekly but remained in a range of between 37,000 and 44,000 people in Lehigh Valley receiving unemployment benefits, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Online ads: Over the last 30 days, 3,700 employers posted 14,270 online job ads in Lehigh Valley. Among them were jobs for logistics workers such as stockers and registered nurses, according to Chmura Economic’s JobsEQ Platform.

Workplace visits: Using Google Mobility Reports, the nonprofit Brookings Institution found the number of visits to Lehigh Valley work places increased by 8.2% from May to June. That ranked the region as making the 12th biggest jump of all metropolitan areas its size. But Lehigh Valley is still 29.2% lower than the five-week baseline period at the beginning of the year, according to Brookings’ findings.

Business closures: Yelp, a website that crowdsources reviews about businesses, counted on its website 283 total business closures (both temporary and permanent) between March 1 and July 10. It notes 183 businesses are marked as permanently closed as of July 10.

Loss of income: the U.S. Census has launched several experimental data products to assess the recovery, though the data don’t drill down to the local level. Its latest weekly Household Pulse Survey, which covers July 9-14, survey shows that 51.1% of American adults live in households that have experienced a loss in employment income.

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