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Millions of Americans moved during the pandemic — and most aren't looking back

The faces of America's cities and neighborhoods have been forever altered by the pandemic.
Image: A man wearing a suit pushes a wheelbarrow filled with his desk, chair and computer across a rural farm field.
Buyers are fleeing the cities, seeking more affordable homes and yard space for their families, home offices for parents, and designated areas for remote learning for their children.Baptiste Virot / for NBC News

Americans fled big cities in droves to escape the coronavirus pandemic — and many of them are staying, permanently or indefinitely. But escape means something different depending on whom you ask.

The top destination cities as of October and November were Sacramento, California; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Austin, Texas; and Atlanta, according to the real estate site Redfin. Interest is particularly high for Austin, where double the number of people moved this year compared to last year.

The main driver is that people want more space, prompting higher sales of luxury, suburban and rural homes, said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin.

"It's a K-shaped recovery. Wealthy people are doing well, and more affluent people are more able to work remotely," Fairweather said.

Buyers are seeking more affordable homes and yard space for their families, home offices for parents, designated areas for remote learning for their children and, with some gyms closed or customers wary of re-entering, their own workout spaces.

Homes with guesthouses or additional suites have also sold briskly as families take in their older parents to maintain multigenerational face time. Many have taken elderly relatives out of nursing homes, which have been sites of coronavirus outbreaks, to simplify the family bubble.

Buyers are using virtual 3D home tours, sending in agents to tour houses by video, and buying homes sight unseen to avoid repeated trips and higher risk of exposure, Fairweather said.

Some South and Southwestern states, which had fewer lockdown restrictions, added people fleeing more restrictive counties and states for both economic and ideological reasons.

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Jehna Powell, 23, a bartender and gym employee, recently moved from Eaton, Colorado, to Pensacola Beach, Florida.

"I can't stand living in Colorado anymore. The governor does not have the best interest for small businesses and people born and raised in Colorado," Powell said in an online message.

During a recent trip to Florida, she fell in love with the warmer weather and decided to make the jump with her dog this summer. While the cost of living is about the same as in Eaton, Powell said she enjoys the "simpler life" and hopes bartending income will pick up next summer.

In Florida, people are "happy ... being able to do what they see necessary as far as protecting themselves," Powell said. For example, the bar she works at doesn't mandate wearing masks.

Some people fleeing major cities said they were afraid of dying from Covid-19 and burdening their partners with housing costs they wouldn't be able to bear on their own.

Amber Parker of Atascadero, California, had to make a decision when her husband lost his income. He was a head coach for a basketball team at a junior college, and the school decided not to risk playing sports this year.

"We realized if either of us were to die or lose our jobs, the other could not cover the mortgage," Parker said in an online message. "Although, we do not live in fear of the virus. Just logical thinkers."

So they sold their home and moved themselves and their two children to Lexington, South Carolina. While the family is excited, they all know they will miss family and friends.

"We mainly just want to see our kids thrive," Parker said. "California is completely shut down."

In their new town, their youngest child, 11, will be able to go to school four days a week and their 14-year-old two days a week. And both will be able to participate in sports.

The pandemic and remote working arrangements have opened up new opportunities for people to try out living in new areas without having to leave their old jobs or save up a lot of money.

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Abigail Jaffe, 28, who works in public relations for tech companies, moved from New York City to Austin in August. Her roommate left their shared apartment to move back with her parents and work remotely, which meant Jaffe had to decide whether to find a new roommate during the pandemic, and all that entails, or move.

"I had wanted to move to Austin for a while but always thought that I'd have to quit my job first," she said. Instead, the pandemic gave her a chance to pursue her dream.

"It's so much better. I pay the same amount for a one-bedroom now that I was paying to split a two-bedroom in New York City," Jaffe wrote in an online message. She also got a car and a dog, both of which could have been a challenge in her previous location.

Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate and finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said the pandemic has fast-tracked long-term demographic shifts.

The pandemic accelerated population loss in some urban centers and pushed a move toward suburban and rural areas, Wachter said. And now, unlike earlier in the pandemic, people are making long-term moves, not just temporary relocations, to escape Covid-19 or its effects on their quality of life.

Before the pandemic, workers and families grappled with a terrible choice when deciding where to live. "You could commute several hours or pay inordinate housing costs," Wachter said. "Now, you can avoid both."

People who left cities may return if their offices allow it or require one to two days a week of in-person engagement, but many could resettle farther out from cities to take advantage of the lower cost of living, the higher quality of life and more access to nature and outdoor activities.

But younger workers and those fresh out of school will still flock to cities, drawn by relatively discounted rents, the chance to meet new people and get critical face time and the opportunity to develop skills to nurture their careers.

"The new generation will choose cities — as before," Wachter said.