The unprecedented economic pause that America is currently experiencing comes with a question: How and when should the economy be restarted and Americans sent back to work? The Trump Administration and business leaders are working together to walk the tightrope between restarting too early, which could rekindle the pandemic, and waiting too late, which could cause irreparable economic damage.
“The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people,” Tom Golisano, founder and chairman of Paychex Inc., told Bloomberg in March. “I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they’re going then so many of them will have to fold.”
“You’re picking the better of two evils,” said Golisano. “You have to weigh the pros and cons.”
Golisano advocated partially reopening the country. Hot spots would remain under lockdown, but people in areas that were not hard hit could venture out and return to work.
Golisano’s comments echo the president’s repeated desire to put the country back to work. Mr. Trump originally targeted an end to stay-at-home orders for Easter Sunday but was forced to relent on that plan in the face of predictions of catastrophic death tolls. White House medical advisors predicted that ending the mitigation strategies early could increase deaths from 200,000 to more than two million.
The desire of the president and business leaders to get America back to work conflicts with the advice of medical leaders such as Anthony Fauci. Speaking to CNN last week, Fauci said all governors “really should” issue stay-at-home orders to slow the transmission of the virus, adding “I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that.”
Fauci’s belief in the need for Americans to stay home has earned him attacks from some pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, who called Drs. Fauci and Birx, both prominent members of the Coronavirus Task Force, “data-slaves” and members of the “Deep State.” The anger and threats directed at Fauci prompted the Health and Human Services Department to give the immunologist a security detail last week.
Nevertheless, Americans can’t stay home forever. The question is when to send them back into the workplace.
Gary Cohn, a former Trump economic advisor and president of Goldman Sachs, said in Axios that business leaders need “a realistic timeframe” because they are concerned that employees will leave to take other jobs. Further, some business owners are mulling whether to cut their losses and “just lay my people off and shut down and give the landlord the key.”
Dr. Fauci said last week that the return to work is dependent upon the results of the mitigation strategies.
“I think if we get to the part of the curve … when it goes down to essentially no new cases, no deaths at a period of time,” Fauci said, “It makes sense that you’re going to have to relax social distancing.”
That metric may be met at different times in different parts of the country and for different industries. Areas that have already flattened the curve might be released for work before areas that have not yet peaked, for example. Industries in which workers can be separated from each other or where they can wear masks and gloves could also be restarted earlier than those in which people are in close proximity without protection. People who have already recovered from the virus or who test negative might also be returned to work earlier than those who have not been tested.
Cohn also cautioned that past downturns had shown that depression and substance abuse can become problems for people who don’t work regularly and are worried about their financial wellbeing, saying, “No one wants to talk about this, but can you even get workers back who aren’t so addicted or depressed they can actually function?”
The flip side is that workers, especially those who are high-risk, may refuse to return to jobs if they feel that the situation is unsafe. This is especially true as the death toll continues to rise and thousands of new cases are reported daily around the country. Those employees who did return to work might find that there were no customers since many people would prefer to shelter-in-place rather than risk becoming infected on a shopping trip.
“If this goes on too long, the fear builds more and more,” the executive of a global company told Axios. “We need to lay the groundwork for the fear to ebb.”
For the fear to ebb, the death rates will have to fall. Right now, the IHME models are predicting that won’t happen nationally until April 16. For many states, the peak will come even later. The CEOs that Axios talked to said that most workers probably wouldn’t be back on the job until June at the earliest but that phased restarts should be taking place by May.
At this point, it is too soon to reopen the economy, but state and local leaders will have to start making those decisions within the next few weeks. The decisions need to be made in consultation with medical experts and with an eye toward preventing a resurgence of the outbreak.
“A lot of people are concerned” about the economy, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, but then added that he would “err on the side of safety, every single time.”
Originally published on The Resurgent
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