There’s Really Only One Way to Reopen the Economy

The New York Times

A number of states are declaring that their economies are open for business. What they’re really doing is saying that it is permissible for many businesses that were closed by regulation to achieve adequate social distancing to open once again. It’s likely that many will. Small businesses have been devastated by this lockdown, and they’re eager to get going once again.
But businesses do not exist in a vacuum. They need employees, some of whom will not be able to come to work because they are in a high-risk population — they are older, have chronic health conditions or care for someone that does. Others are parents whose children are still at home because schools and child-care facilities are still shuttered. They won’t easily be able to get back to their jobs.
More significantly, an economy depends on consumers just as much as producers. Businesses need customers. It’s not clear they plan to participate.
If a nail salon or tattoo parlor is open but no customers show up, those businesses will suffer. If restaurants are open but no one shows up to eat, those restaurants will suffer. When movies, concerts or sporting events open up, people aren’t going to show up, no matter how much performers and sports teams would like them to.
Despite the many news stories covering the protests demanding that governors lift restrictions, the number of Americans who agree with the protesters is very small. Surveys show that a vast majority of Americans support strict shelter-in-place policies that are intended to limit the spread of the disease. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans think they are unnecessary.

Eighty percent of those surveyed said they could shelter in place for at least another month, and a third said they could for at least another six months.
“The economy is just us,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economics professor at the University of Michigan. “How much would we each be willing to give up to stay safe? If we open tomorrow, few are going to be willing to take the risk of engaging fully in the economy. Who wants to be the guinea pig who tests how dangerous going to a crowded restaurant still is?”
That customers and workers fear an outbreak is only part of the problem. There’s also the reality that they are right to be fearful. Loosening restrictions is likely to cause the number of Covid-19 cases to increase. Most businesses aren’t prepared to function in a world where the chance of getting an infection is real. The mayor of Las Vegas wants to let casinos reopen, for instance, but she doesn’t have a plan for how they can do so safely. She thinks everyone should figure it out for themselves.
But the casinos don’t know either. No one seems to want to take responsibility in case something goes wrong. The liability risk could be enormous if people get sick, and it’s probable someone will.