When is it safe to reopen the economy? Three questions

Nick Oxford/Reuters
People who lost their jobs fill out paperwork to file for unemployment, following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), at an Arkansas Workforce Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, April 6, 2020.

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President Donald Trump says that it’s the biggest decision he’ll ever make: When and how to lift the COVID-19-related restrictions on social and economic life that have upended how Americans live for the past month. In reality, the decisions will mostly be taken at a state and municipal level, and there will likely be phases of reopening, not a big bang approach.

Experts have drawn up various proposals for how to restart the economy – not necessarily all of it, but enough to snap a vertiginous slide into a deep recession. But they are built on assumptions about the pandemic itself and the public-health capacity to tamp down future outbreaks. None of that is simple and it varies by region and locality. But public pressure for an easing of lockdowns is building. 

“[The people] are telling us, ‘We want to go back to work,’” says Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington. “They’re telling us, ‘Give us a way out of it. ... We’ll work with you in order to overcome this.’”

Why We Wrote This

Calls to reopen the economy are understandable, given the social and economic hardships imposed by state and city lockdowns. But it may be a long and winding road to a new normal.

With the economy in near free-fall and Americans hunkering in their homes, many are asking how they can get back to business as usual. A normalcy where parents go to work, kids go to school, and consumers can shop and eat out freely.

It’s a question without easy answers. 

Because the current economic plunge is rooted in a public-health emergency, experts say the path toward a reopened economy is tightly bound to containing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Why We Wrote This

Calls to reopen the economy are understandable, given the social and economic hardships imposed by state and city lockdowns. But it may be a long and winding road to a new normal.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But with the unemployment rate possibly headed to levels not seen in living memory, policymakers are increasingly anxious to end the disruption, with looming elections adding to the pressure.

President Donald Trump on Monday claimed he alone had the power to declare a “reopening,” and is appointing a special task force of political and business figures to weigh the issue. State governors, who instigated key virus-related restrictions and insist they will decide when and how to lift them, are laying their own plans – with constitutional scholars widely backing their authority to decide.

And even public-health experts, while focused squarely on quashing the pandemic, acknowledge the importance of reopening and recovery as soon as feasible.

“[The people] are telling us, ‘We want to go back to work,’” says Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer at the Population Health Initiative at the University of Washington. “They’re telling us, ‘Give us a way out of it. ... We’ll work with you in order to overcome this.’”

Here are three questions about the battle over restarting the economy.

What does “reopen” actually mean?

From politicians and economists to health experts like Professor Mokdad, a broad consensus is that halted activities will come back to life in phases, not all at once. 

“It’s not going to be we flip a switch and everybody comes out of their house and gets in their car and waves and hugs each other,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said this week.

Three Pacific Coast states this week sketched a joint framework for reopening, with Gov. Gavin Newsom of California pledging an “incremental release of the stay-at-home orders.”  

“We need to see a decline in the rate of spread of the virus before large-scale reopening,” the joint statement with Govs. Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington said.

Experts, ranging from Democratic-leaning think tanks to President Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb, say stay-at-home orders can be lifted when localities are ready to use widespread testing for the virus, in concert with some measure of “contact tracing” so that those at risk of spreading the virus can be quickly quarantined.

Many details are unsettled. Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, have bickered recently over the Mayor’s decision that the city’s public schools will remain closed through September.

Mass public events could be among the last activities to revive. A plan from the liberal Center for American Progress proposes that, even once conditions for “reopening” are met, precautions should include bans on gatherings of more than 50 people. 

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, on Monday outlined a plan with “sites like offices and stores reopening before arenas and theaters.”

Many plans also involve special safeguards for the most vulnerable segments of the population, such as people who live in nursing homes or who work in essential jobs that involve proximity to many people.

When can it happen?

President Trump last month voiced hope that a reopening of the economy could happen by Easter, but now even a revised White House aspiration of May 1 looks premature. 

The Center for American Progress plan calls for “national and state stay-at-home policies [to] remain in place for a minimum of 45 days starting April 5.”  

The plan put forth recently by Mr. Gottlieb and other health experts calls for states not to relax restrictions until confirmed new cases fall consistently for at least 14 days, local hospitals are ready to treat all coronavirus patients, and testing is available to anyone with symptoms. Some states may already be seeing their peak in coronavirus cases, but the capacity for large-scale testing or contact tracing is not yet in place.

How can success be judged? 

If a reopening goes well, the nation will see both a steady revival of economic activity and a steady decline in virus cases – and avoid subsequent new outbreaks. But expectations based on a prior “normal” may need to be tempered.

Even in this scenario, many economic forecasters expect a degree of “social distancing” to persist, and that some jobs and businesses will never come back.

Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, envisions a “checkmark”-shaped rebound rather than a V-shaped pickup that is as fast and strong as the downturn was. 

A full return to 2019 levels of activity could take several years, even with the massive, $2 trillion and rising, federal efforts to rescue workers and businesses. And health experts say a successful recovery will hinge partly on medical unknowns: Will immunity to the disease prove fleeting? When will treatments or a vaccine arrive?

Mr. Posen agrees that the public-health battle is a wild card. But he voiced a cautious hope in an online briefing last week. “I think we are meaningfully going to recover faster than many people are now expecting,” because so many workers and small businesses have a resilience honed by prior hardships, he said. 

Dr. Mokdad at the University of Washington says the balancing act ahead is a very personal one for himself and other Americans. His own 20-year-old daughter is now stuck taking her college classes from home. 

“I want the best for our kids. I want my country to go back to normal,” he says. “But at the same time, I don’t want people to die. I don’t want to take chances.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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