Americans Just Want to Have Fun at Restaurants, Concerts and the Movies Again
Since 2020, Morning Consult has surveyed hundreds of thousands of Americans in ongoing surveys to gauge the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on public opinion and behaviors across a wide range of categories, from politics and economics to moviegoing and dining. Now that the World Health Organization has declared an end to the COVID-19 global health emergency, this series explores how much has returned to normal — and how many norms are lost entirely.
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More than three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, most Americans are comfortable doing the social activities they used to do: grabbing a bite to eat, seeing the next big movie in theaters or attending a crowded concert.
But a segment of the public may never be quite comfortable doing these things again, according to Morning Consult trend data. As comfort for some activities stabilizes, the data reveals what a new normal could look like for consumers moving forward.
With the World Health Organization’s declaration last week that COVID-19 is no longer a global public health emergency and the United States set to follow suit Thursday, Morning Consult took stock of how comfortable U.S. adults feel today about a variety of social activities like going to the movies, taking a flight and more — and how far those comfort levels have come since the early days of the pandemic.
After tracking consumer comfort levels over the past three years — which included the release of vaccines and boosters, alongside the emergence of the omicron and delta variants — the results confirm that most of the public feels safe participating in these activities now, likely good news for the industries that were devastated during the pandemic and rely on foot traffic and in-person attendance.
Tracking Consumer Comfort Across the Pandemic Years
Where comfort stands now
- From the start of Morning Consult tracking until now, going out to eat saw the largest jump in public comfort, from 23% in May 2020 to 77% in May 2023 — an increase of 54 percentage points.
- As of the latest survey, 3 in 5 U.S. adults said they feel comfortable attending a sporting event, an activity that peaked last month (62%). A bright spot for the industry: 72% of self-identified sports fans said the same in May 2023.
- While 2 in 3 Americans currently feel fine going to the movies, 30% of baby boomers said they feel uncomfortable with the idea, the highest share among generations. Still, there’s been progress: 83% of the cohort said the same in May 2020, nearly a year before American adults became eligible to receive a vaccine.
- As the summer music festival season approaches, 3 in 5 Americans said they feel comfortable going to a concert right now, including 65% of millennials, the largest share of any generation. In May 2020, only 17% of the cohort said the same.
- A gap between comfort with flying domestically and internationally never closed — the smallest difference came in February 2021 (24% to 16%, respectively). Americans remain significantly more comfortable flying domestically (57%) than internationally (48%). Taking an international flight was the only social activity tracked by Morning Consult that failed to ever reach 50%.
- Comfort with some activities has hardly changed, or increased only slightly, in the past year, suggesting a possible new normal. Comfort dining out, for instance, is only 2 points higher today than it was around this time in 2022.
Here comes the industry optimism
Given the Biden administration’s plans to let the coronavirus public health emergency expire on Thursday, it’s not surprising that executives across these industries are striking an optimistic tone.
The Hollywood box office has shown in recent months that highly anticipated films (“Avatar: The Way of Water”) and surprise hits (“The Super Mario Bros. Movie”) are enough to bring consumers back to theaters. Despite the current writers strike, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. CEO Adam Aron was bullish on the near future.
"We could not be more optimistic about the prospects for the 2023 box office, except to say that 2024 looks even better," Aron said last week.
Still, nearly a quarter of the general population (22%) remains uncomfortable going to the movies, a worrying figure for a theatrical industry that’s already combating the rise in streaming that was, in part, driven by COVID-19. Many box-office experts say the theatrical industry may never recover to its pre-pandemic heights.
In the sports world, fans have returned to cheer their favorite teams and players on from the stands. Just look at the country’s favorite sport: The average NFL crowd hit 69,442 attendees last season, a more than 3% uptick year over year, per Sports Business Journal. The NBA, which played its 2020 postseason in a “bubble” for player and personnel safety, also bounced back, setting new records for attendance and sellouts during its most recent season.
Despite some recent bad press, Ticketmaster-owner Live Nation Entertainment Inc. said it has sold 90 million concert tickets so far this year, a 20% jump year over year. Major tour announcements from acts like Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen have certainly helped.
And while the pandemic altered the way we order food — from contactless in-person ordering to the rise of delivery apps — the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Restaurant Industry report said the food service industry will grow this year to reach $997 billion in sales. (That’s more than $100 million more than the industry’s 2019 figure.)
Business owners seem happy about the current state of play, too: “Nearly 3 in 4 operators say business conditions are already close to normal — a new, more positive normal — or are well on the path,” per the organization.
Surveys were conducted between May 2020 and May 2023, among a representative sample of approximately 2,200 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Wesley Case is an editor at Morning Consult for coverage of entertainment, brands and sports. @wesleycase