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Research Consortium Report Focuses on Lehigh Valley Resilience

By George Lewis on November 19, 2020

The year 2020 brought unique challenges to Lehigh Valley. A research consortium supported by region’s private colleges and universities focused its annual State of the Lehigh Valley report this year on the community’s resilience in addressing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has challenged our region in ways unimaginable a few months ago,” said Christine Carpino, assistant professor of political science at Cedar Crest College and director of the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium (LVRC). “Yet, despite the obstacles we face, the Lehigh Valley continues to push forward – the essence of community resilience.”

This year’s State of the Lehigh Valley, the 12th that LVRC has published, provides economic, social, and historical perspectives on the region’s pandemic response. The report was released in conjunction with a Nov. 13 virtual event hosted by LVRC’s sponsoring organization, the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges (LVAIC).

LVAIC consists of the region’s six independent colleges and universities: Cedar Crest College, DeSales University, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, Moravian College and Muhlenberg College.

Analyzing both public and private data sources, researchers Christopher Ruebeck of Lafayette College and Sabrina Terrizzi of Moravian College, reported that the economic impacts of the pandemic have not affected all industry sectors, job types, and demographic segments equally.

Their research showed that jobs in Lehigh Valley’s vibrant health care and education sectors increased between September 2019 and September 2020, while the leisure and hospitality sectors saw employment decrease by 27.7%.

The pandemic’s effect was not equal across income levels, either. A disproportionate amount of job losses occurred among workers making less than $27,000 a year, while employment increased in Lehigh Valley for workers making more than $60,000 a year.

“For higher-income workers, the recession is over – if it ever even started,” Terrizzi said, noting that higher-income workers are more likely to have jobs that were able to transition to remote work.

To further explore resiliency, they examined consumer spending, which initially dropped by around 40%, but by September was only off by single digits compared with January 2020 in both Lehigh and Northampton counties.

“Although there is still ground to be regained, we can see the effect of the federal government’s rapid response with a fiscal policy answer to the crisis,” Ruebeck and Terrizzi wrote.

They also reviewed data on business growth in Easton. In each of the previous five years, they found, Easton had an average of 5.5 more business openings than closings. In 2020, through August, Easton had a net loss of one business, but on the encouraging side, six new businesses opened between April and August.

Exploring social impacts of the pandemic, public health professors Chrysan Cronin of Muhlenberg College, Cathy Coyne of Moravian College, and Hollie Gibbons of Cedar Crest College researched consumer spending, specifically related to food cost and availability.

While food insecurity increased in 2020, most notably among senior citizens and low-income households, their research found that Lehigh Valley has a strong local food system and suppliers, which is working cooperatively to improve food access and affordability.

The State of the Lehigh Valley also examined the emotional toll of COVID-19 on the community, in a study by Cedar Crest College Nursing School professors Todd Hastings and Mae Ann Pasquale.

They noted that social isolation, disruptions in daily routines, and economic uncertainty have adversely affected mental health and placed people at increased risk for anxiety, distress and unhealthy behaviors. Among the most vulnerable, they reported, are health care professionals and first responders. This has important economic implications as well, because health care is the largest employment sector in Lehigh Valley, with more than 60,000 workers.

Ways to build community and personal resilience, they said, include staying connected with others; maintaining healthy routines that include adequate sleep, good eating habits, and outdoor activities; limiting exposure to news and social media; and finding ways to help meet community needs.

For historical perspective, Eike Reichardt, professor of history and geography at Lehigh Carbon Community College, examined Lehigh Valley’s response to the 1918-19 flu pandemic.

At the time, he noted, people in Lehigh Valley, like most Americans, were preoccupied with World War I, and struggled to balance public health measures with economic activities supporting the war effort and patriotic duties.

Then, as now, swift and disciplined community response was key to limiting the disease spread. Bethlehem, which closed schools and churches, coordinated a pandemic response, and set up an emergency hospital to isolate flu patients, achieved better outcomes than Allentown, which allowed most social activities to continue without restrictions.

LVRC combines the expertise of researchers at Lehigh Valley colleges and universities with community partners to examine economic, social, health, environmental, and political issues and solutions. It also provides undergraduate and graduate students the chance to do hands-on research.

LVRC’s objectives align with LVEDC’s focus on economic research and analysis leading to insights that drive data-informed strategies to increase economic opportunity for all Lehigh Valley residents.

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