The shadow of the new coronavirus finally reached American shores this week, as markets jittered downward and new cases crept up. The scope of any outbreak here is not clear, but experts suspect that the virus will become widespread. While the disease, known as COVID-19, is a global phenomenon, the response to it is necessarily local, and divvied up among more than 2,600 local health departments in the U.S.
Municipal governments have prepared plans and local officials are on high alert, but they have little experience dealing with a new infrastructural fact in a major disease outbreak: the gig economy. In Wuhan, China, where the COVID-19 outbreak originated, delivery drivers have played a major role in keeping the city going during containment efforts. In San Francisco, say, if people begin to shelter in place—or even simply shy away from heading out—it would seem likely that more people would order groceries or dinner rather than put themselves at risk.
Gig-economy companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Instacart have two distinct features. One, they are particularly popular in large urban centers, where they play a now-crucial role in transportation and the delivery of local goods. Two, California’s recent legislation notwithstanding, the labor platforms don’t have employees as they have traditionally been understood. Uber drivers and Instacart delivery people receive financial incentives to work, but they are not compelled by a set work schedule.