Opening up the economy too soon could spell disaster

Published 5:22 pm Tuesday, April 21, 2020

President Trump is raring to open the economy, and so are a lot of other people. The president has formed a task force designed to reopen parts of the economy as early as next week. Gov. Bill Lee said Monday he will ask local governments to start opening up their communities this weekend for business, but has said some guidelines will be issued on how to do it.
Many health experts, even some of the nation’s top economists think it is a bad call.
On one side, we have had President Trump and his allies in the business community and on Fox News, stressing the huge economic costs of maintaining the shutdown; on the other side, we have most medical and public health experts, emphasizing the need to allow more time to heal from the virus, and to prevent its potential reemergence. They also stress the need for large-scale “testing and tracing” to successfully reopen, and how hard it will be to implement these practices at scale anytime soon.
There is no question that the shutdown has caused great economic suffering, and we all hope for a timely reopening to start relieving the strain. It is also true that, the longer we remain shut down, the harder the reopening will be. Workers will find their savings more fully depleted, and businesses will have even larger debts to contend with. Many businesses will not survive, or at least will have to change their business models, after a lengthy shutdown, creating permanent job losses for many workers. And more rounds of federal economic relief are needed, both now and again soon, to offset the terrible costs of the shutdown.
Most of us are tired of staying at home, of missing church on Sunday. Still, a premature economic opening will almost certainly add to these costs and difficulties over time. Why is that?
If businesses reopen while health risks remain, many employees will not feel safe at their workplaces. They will then face a terrible choice: putting their health and lives at risk if they show up for work, or perhaps having to quit or face discharge for not doing so (a choice that many workers in “essential” industries, and especially health care, face right now).
For workers who choose the latter option, they will join the ranks of those permanently displaced from their jobs; and they will have great difficulty becoming reemployed, as the economy remains sluggish for months or years ahead. They will also not qualify for Unemployment Insurance, since workers who quit or are fired from their jobs are not eligible to receive it. Secondly, employers in the retail and service sectors will likely find themselves with few customers feeling safe enough to frequent their stores, hair salons, restaurants, bars and movie theaters. These businesses will derive few of the benefits they anticipated from reopening, and might be unable to meet the most minimal costs of staying open, even with fairly skeletal operations.
Third, and by far the greatest risk, is that the virus will once again start quickly spreading, generating larger second or third waves of infections than would otherwise occur. Of course, the human cost of this outcome would be enormous, as we would once again see the numbers of illnesses and deaths associated with the virus rising.
We can use the excuse that the number of COVID-19 cases in Northeast Tennessee remain low. True, but if we had not had stay-at-home orders the past month, the numbers, no doubt, would be much higher. It’s scary to think we are planning to retry to return to normal where there are no true treatments for this pandemic, and a cure is possibly a year away. Quite possibly, the COVID-19 pandemic may remain with us all summer and into the fall.
Opening up the economy is not going to cause the pandemic and its germs to go away. We cannot just ignore it and pretend it is over. Because, it is not.
To re-open the economy is a tough decision to make. If it all works out, the economy springs back and the virus stays in remission, if you will, it’s all good. But if it comes back in a big way, it will have been a catastrophic mistake. The decision to reopen should be based on what the conditions are, where the spread of the virus is, what the likelihood of a resurgence is, not on an arbitrary date in the calendar.
Infection curves are likely flattening because of measures that we are taking to protect ourselves. If we’re seeing a plateau in cases, because of the shutdown, because of the social distancing, then if we step back from that prematurely, we’ll just have another spike.
It’s a risk that some feel is worth taking…but we only hope, we aren’t risking public safety and lives just to get out of the house and save jobs.

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