Remember the good old days when you could walk right next to people you didn’t know and not get nervous? You could eat dinner in a crowded restaurant and then go to the movies or see a show or concert.

Happy days aren’t here again, but New Jersey’s leading economist is out with a new report that suggests things could start to turn around in the not-too-distant future.

James Hughes, a Rutgers University professor and dean emeritus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said we remain in a “dark winter” for the time being, and because of the pandemic, New Jersey still has an employment deficit of 352,000 jobs compared to this same time last year. But a “spring awakening” is anticipated.

He said a new report predicts significant job growth momentum for the second half of the year, and there are three reasons for that.

“We’ve had the second stimulus package already approved and it looks like there will be other federal measures that will be stimulative in nature,” he said. “There’s a lot of money being pumped into the economy.”

He said another reason is Federal Reserve studies indicate savings rates have increased, so there’s a big build-up of consumer spending power coupled with a real pent-up demand for consumer spending on many types of activities.

“That should be potentially unleashed in the second half of the year," he said.

Hughes said the continuing rollout of the COVID vaccine will mean that in six months people will be taking vacations that they had to postpone last year. That means an influx of spending at the Jersey Shore.

He said "people will want to go out to restaurants again if they feel confident that it’s safe" but other in-person activities such as concerts and movies might take longer.

He said that having a significant percentage of the population vaccinated will make a huge difference.

“If we make real headway with that by the summer we should see a pretty significant rebound in the second half of the year,” said Hughes. “However, we do have to get through this dark winter first.”

The report also suggests long commutes may be less likely to come back once the pandemic is over.

“The pandemic challenged long-standing organizational mindsets and exposed outmoded concepts, and work became recognized as more of an activity than simply a place — what people do rather than a place where people go.”

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