March 2023 marked three years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In the wake of that declaration, countries around the world were forced to navigate the challenge of keeping their population physically healthy — while also keeping their SMB economy financially stable.

As shelters-in-place and stay-at-home orders began to take hold, small-and-medium sized businesses now had one other thing to contend with: Their own business’s survival.

Over the next three years, businesses shut down. Businesses struggled. Businesses pivoted. Employees were laid off and furloughed. Some employees became employers, starting their own businesses in order to take control of their destiny as they piloted through the throes of the pandemic.

As we look back on the obstacles and victories that scores of small-and-medium-sized businesses have endured and achieved during the past three years, we’d like to celebrate the top 10 cities who really became a stronghold for businesses to resisted the devastating economic effects of the pandemic.

The Most Pandemic-Resilient Cities — and How Their SMBs Performed

The country’s largest cities, long the biggest engines of economic growth, were all tested in the three years since the pandemic started — but some cities were able to continue their strong growth better than others.

In February 2023, researchers at the Brookings Institution took a look at these most “resilient” metro areas, comparing growth in the years before and after March 2020.

Of the “very large” metro areas the researchers measured (meaning, metro areas with populations above 1 million), all of the top-performing metro areas were in the South — in states like Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina — or out west, in Arizona and California. Florida and California, in particular, were the two states with multiple cities on the list: Tampa, Jacksonville, Riverside, and Sacramento.

Using Gusto data, we ran our numbers with metro-level data from our Economic Data Tracker, and found that SMBs in these cities have seen huge growth in earnings and employment since the start of the pandemic.

Phoenix, Arizona was the most resilient “very large” metro area on the Brookings list. That city has also seen the fastest jobs growth the past three years in that city (58% growth in jobs), driven by large population gains and a relatively low cost-of-living.

Sacramento, California saw the fastest pay increases over the last three years (27% growth in earnings), with fast-growing sectors like Health Care and Leisure and Hospitality powering those increases.

Top 10 Resilient Major “Very Large” Metro Areas % Growth in Earnings % Growth in Jobs
Phoenix 16% 58%
Charlotte 20% 18%
Austin 16% 54%
Tampa 9% 56%
Riverside 21% 49%
Raleigh 20% 56%
Salt Lake City 17% 54%
Sacramento 27% 37%
Nashville 23% 56%
Jacksonville 18% 48%
Luke Pardue Luke Pardue was an Economist at Gusto, researching how public policies help small businesses and their workers thrive. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, where he studied the effects of government programs on disadvantaged populations’ housing and labor market outcomes.
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