The test of leadership will be whether governors, business executives, school superintendents and university presidents can muster the courage to ignore the grandstanding and come up with practical ways to minimize risks both to public health and to economic well-being.
The best solutions will be those that are tailored to particular regions, industries and institutions. But here are a few general principles we should keep in mind.
Trade-offs are inevitable. It is moral and economic nonsense to demand that no enterprise or activity should reopen if it will expose even one person to the virus or risk a single death.
While life is precious, preventing one death is not worth a trillion dollars in national income, or forcing 10,000 businesses to fail, or requiring 300 million people to quarantine themselves for a year or more until everyone is vaccinated. If that were the case, morality would require us to outlaw liquor, handguns, automobiles and swimming pools.
Nor is it true that no matter how great the short-term economic damage caused by a prolonged lockdown, it will be pale in comparison to the long-term damage caused by more virus-related deaths. Numbers matter.
The debate we should be having — and the debate that absolutists on both sides seem determined to shut down — is over what costs and risks we are willing to accept as a society. There are no riskless or costless solutions.
This is not a science. The answer to such questions are not easy or obvious. While we need to rely on doctors, scientists and public health professionals for their best advice on health outcomes, and economists and business leaders for economic ones, the decisions about when and how to open the economy are ours to make, collectively, as citizens, not theirs. Even the experts will acknowledge that their understanding of this virus remains imperfect, their projections heavily dependent on best-guess assumptions and their conclusions framed in terms of probabilities, not certainties. Weighing risks against rewards, deciding how much we value one thing over another — those are fundamentally political and moral questions, not scientific or economic ones. And however we resolve them, there will be costs and risks, winners and losers, and enough uncertainty that we should be prepared to reverse course if things don’t work out as planned.
Social distancing works. The pandemic gave us all a math lesson in exponential growth: 1 infects 10, 10 infect 100, 100 infect 10,000 and so forth. But the reverse is also true: Significantly reducing contacts dramatically reduces the infection rate to a more manageable level. In places where it was done early enough, a month-long hiatus succeeded in flattening the curve and preventing a big spike in infections that threatened to overwhelm the health-care system. But it was never expected to eradicate the virus or thoroughly contain it. Now that it has succeeded, however, it offers the opportunity for many people to go back to many activities under carefully controlled conditions, keeping the curve relatively flat but never eliminating it entirely.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If half of all workers, customers, students or participants can return to normal activities without causing a significant increase in the infection rate, certainly that is better than allowing nobody to do so. Better in terms of the economy, certainly. And better in terms of everyone’s willingness to put up with whatever restrictions will need to remain in force.
As an example, under carefully sanitized conditions, maybe half of a company’s employees could come back for a morning shift and half for an afternoon shift, to allow people to maintain distance.
Restaurants could open, as some have already proposed, with only half the number of usual tables available and with additional steps taken to minimize contact between waitstaffs and patrons.
Retail outlets could limit the number of customers in the store at any one time and require customers and salespeople to wear masks and gloves, as some are already doing.
Construction projects could be reconfigured and rescheduled to allow workers to keep their distance.
Universities could resume in-person classes for some students who choose that option, while allowing others to follow along with the lecture or participate in discussions online.
Tennis courts could reopen for singles but not doubles, gyms could be reconfigured, golf courses could limit players to one per cart. To avoid crowds, national and state parks could be accessible by reservation only.
Obviously, none of these things should be tried without the approval of health professionals or without an extensive testing regime to minimize risk and monitor how things are going. It would also be important to give plenty of room for ingenuity, experimentation and adaptation. The best arrangements will be those that are voluntary, allowing people to choose which level of risk they are comfortable with.
Play the probabilities. One of the challenges of containing the covid-19 virus is that many of those who get the virus don’t ever show any symptoms. But what that also means is that there are now likely millions of people who may already be immune. Priority should be placed on developing reliable tests for identifying them and allowing them to form the vanguard of those getting back to work and school.
The latest government data shows that 78 percent of Americans who have died from the virus are older than 65, while a significant proportion of deaths at younger ages involve underlying health conditions that made those people vulnerable. So if our top priority is minimizing deaths, then focusing a stay-at-home regime on the elderly and the medically vulnerable should get us most of the way there without keeping millions of children out of school and day care and millions of workers from their livelihoods to avoid low-probability risks.
Prioritize workers over investors. The best way — maybe the only way — to put a floor under the economic recession is to prevent large number of businesses from going under. And with little or no cash coming in, the only way prevent many businesses from going under is for them to put off paying some of their bills. The most logical candidates: payments to landlords and lenders.
Generally speaking, lenders are in a better financial position than workers and suppliers to wait for their money. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury have already committed trillions of dollars to keep banks and other lenders afloat by lending them money at low interest rates and buying their bonds and credit instruments. And if, in the meantime, these financial intermediaries have to suspend paying dividends to shareholders or delay interest payments to investors, those are the people and institutions in the best position to handle the financial disruption and loss. The alternative — driving millions of firms and households into default and bankruptcy — would be worse for the economy, the financial system and for investors.
Prioritize low-wage workers over high. It is more than a little self-serving and intellectually disingenuous for white-collar professionals working from home to demand that those who have lost paychecks and benefits be required to shelter in place for months on end. There is an undeniable class element not only to the economic impact of the lockdown but also to the division of opinion on when and how to end it.
There is, however, a way to reduce some of that unfairness. Cash-strapped businesses, governments and universities could temporarily reduce paychecks for highly paid workers who can clearly get by with less, and use the savings to keep more workers on the payroll and keep money flowing to cash-strapped suppliers. Any foregone compensation could be repaid later in the form of cash or stock or extra vacation time. A number of chief executives have already acknowledged the symbolic importance of shared sacrifice by temporarily reducing their own pay. Temporarily reducing the pay of anyone making more than, say, $100,000 a year could have more than just symbolic significance and help ease the cash crunch that many businesses, schools and nonprofits are facing.
Get Congress back to work. If hard political choices need to be made, it’s the job of members of Congress to make them — in person, in Washington, rather than cowering in their districts.
Social distancing can also work at the Capitol. Every member does not have to be in the same room at the same time for committees to hold hearings or draft bills, nor do they all have to be simultaneously present in the House and Senate chambers for there to be debate and votes. And if safety requires that they don’t have the full complement of staff on hand, all the better — maybe they might actually spend time talking to one another.
Every day in America, tens of millions of doctors, nurses, EMTs, grocery workers, bus drivers, firefighters and flight attendants muster the courage and conviction to show up to serve the public. Members of Congress can surely do the same. Their prolonged absence during this national emergency is an embarrassing reminder of the degree to which they have made themselves irrelevant, ceding most of their power to a president and a handful of legislative leaders who are hopelessly addicted to partisan gamesmanship. And once they make the return trip, they should remain at their jobs for as long as it takes to get us back to ours.