W ith vaccinations becoming increasingly accessible both locally and nationally, many understandably might feel cautiously optimistic about what the future holds.

But will 2021 see everyday life get closer to its pre-COVID state?

One question posed by a return to “normalcy” is whether the economy, and the state of employment more generally, could see an upturn.

Recently, South Sound Business reached out to state Employment Security Department economists Anneliese Vance-Sherman and Jim Vleming for their insights. What might we see in the coming months? And what — if anything — can we be optimistic about?

A Year of COVID

Vleming, who focuses on South Sound counties such as Pierce, Thurston, Grays Harbor, Kitsap, and others, said 2020 had seemed to be a promising year economically until the COVID-19 shutdown. April 2020 unemployment rates in the South Sound immediately pushed into the upper teens, with Grays Harbor peaking at 21 percent, for example.

After that initial April shock, Vleming said, numbers progressively improved throughout the year as phased reopenings and shutdowns occurred. This trend had continued to advance in January, Vleming said.

Will We “Bounce Back”?

Notions of a “return to normal” likely will not be so cut and dried — there still will be new developments to adjust to.

“The fact that we have collectively lived a different lifestyle over the past year implicitly means that we have changed our habits and rhythms,” Sherman said. “I think it will take some time to return to ‘normal’ now that we are entrenched in new habits. Many businesses have succumbed to or will continue to suffer as a result of the new operating environment.”

Uncertainties likely will continue to affect decision-making, she said.

With the state continuing to gradually reopen, Vleming is looking for unemployment rates to continue their decline.

Sectors best equipped to handle COVID-19-related obstacles — such as online retail, information, manufacturing, some R&D, and others — will inevitably also be the ones to see the fastest recoveries as health mandates slacken. Sherman said food production also is well-positioned for recovery, as are industries making medical products and PPE.

Naturally, recovery for industries such as leisure, hospitality, and tourism won’t be as straightforward, since their successes are far more contingent on clients’ personal comfort.

However, these industries could nonetheless “bounce back” fairly quickly once more people feel comfortable.

“With more people being vaccinated and improving weather, travel will also be on a lot of people’s minds — that will also add to an uptick in employment,” Vleming said. Vleming added that while the “crystal ball is cloudy at this point,” early 2021 is pointing to lower unemployment rates and expanding payrolls.

“As long as we continue making progress on the virus, that progress will mirror itself in positive economic news,” he said. “The idea of returning to ‘normal’ has been the carrot, and the collective momentum of the population will manifest itself in positive growth moving forward.”