As COVID-19 Fades, Consumer Spending Rebounds

Oregonians are returning to restaurants, driving and stocking up on luggage, a state economist finds.

Suitcases at Portland International Airport. (Brian Burk)

If suitcases are a leading economic indicator, the U.S. economy is going to get better.

Josh Lehner of the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis pulled data on the eve of spring break to see if consumer spending had reached pre-pandemic levels. He looked at hotels, airlines, foreign travel, dining, amusement parks, movies, concerts, sports, tours, and luggage.

So far, only suitcase purchases and dining out have recovered fully. Other categories, including movies, concerts, and amusement parks are still running at about 50%, Lehner says.

“Next week is Spring Break here in Oregon,” Lehner wrote on his blog. “It’s the first one in a couple of years that might actually feel like Spring Break. COVID cases and hospitalizations are low, masks are off if you want, and household finances remain strong.”

In short, there is pent-up demand for fun. And people buying luggage are probably getting ready to buy plane tickets.

Many of the numbers Lehner cites are national. To get a bead on local conditions, he looked to the Oregon Department of Transportation. The agency’s traffic counts show that driving is back to where it was in the pre-COVID era.

ODOT Traffic Data

“For much of the past couple of years, driving behavior was just a little lower than it had been, but that gap looks to have closed,” Lehner wrote. “Oregon does have a slightly larger population today than a few years ago, so on a per capita basis, driving is down a little.”

Passenger counts show that travel to Oregon’s regional airports has fully recovered, but the numbers at PDX are still down by 20% to 30%, probably because business travel remains weak, Lehner says. One last state-level indicator: Travel Oregon says hotel occupancy outside of the Portland area is above pre-pandemic figures.

The question is whether the virus remains at bay. This week brought news that a subvariant of Omicron called BA.2 is spreading in Europe, which, like the U.S., has dropped pandemic restrictions. Germany on Wednesday recorded its highest level of infections since the pandemic began: 1,607 new cases per 100,000 people over seven days, according to The Guardian.

So go ahead and buy the suitcase, but maybe take it to Hawaii instead of Berlin.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.