At present, even in “lockdown” mode, wide swaths of economic activity continue. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s thoughtful executive order restricting economic activity — tough as it is — exempts 59 specific occupations from its scope. Not just doctors, nurses, health-care workers and first responders, but also, utility workers, hotel staff, parking garage attendants, farmers and food producers, warehouse and distribution workers, employees at laundromats and dry cleaners, those who manufacture paper products, hardware store employees, auto mechanics, payroll processors, electricians, janitors, and more than 40 other endeavors. If you are at home reading this, it is because someone is providing power and water and food and supplies and deliveries — and this newspaper — to you, by being at their workplace.
What are we doing to keep those people safe? I have seen no formal estimate, but it is no small share of the workforce. When some of us have completed our weeks in isolation, what about all of them? What about the doctors and nurses who will get sick by treating the ill without adequate protective gear? Let’s be clear: The virus will still be very much among us 14 days from now. We cannot wish it away.
“Lockdown” also is misguided as a term of prescription, as well. By sounding overly harsh, it encourages defiance. Even under restriction, people are free to go to grocery stores and drugstores as needed, go out to exercise and accept deliveries. If officials want Americans to live this way, then describing it as livable — and not as a mass form of house arrest — is critical.
Looking ahead, there will come a time when it makes sense to resume additional economic endeavors. But that should not mean that everything goes back to the way it was, status quo ante. And that is where the policy planning is most lacking right now.
Rather than debating “lock it down” vs. “let it open,” we need to discuss what the preconditions are for a restoration of activities — more widespread testing, adequate hospital beds for the sick and adequate gear for health-care workers — and what a gradual restoration of activity will look like when the time comes. Our economy is not an on/off switch, it is a dial: the dial is at low now (but not zero); when we dial it back up, it should not immediately go back to the highest setting.
For example, when it is time to reopen production facilities, we might need to do so with fewer workers per shift, spread farther apart — even if it means less than peak output. Reopened offices might change from the currently-popular model of workers close together. We could ultimately allow more stores to open — but with limited capacity and hours, and new practices to lessen social contact. Restoration for restaurants will be slower still — and even then, with fewer customers, more spread out. When sports and cultural events first resume, they might do so without live audiences, to avoid large gatherings.
Once we catch up on the essential — and inexcusably lacking — task of providing adequate protective equipment for our health-care workers and first responders, we should continue boosted levels of production so gear can be provided as appropriate to help other professions to work safely around others. We cannot live in a no-risk society — not before, not now, not later — but we can take steps to make workers safer. Keeping workers safe, not keeping the Dow Jones industrial average up, must be the objective.
A well-organized administration would have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration busy now on guidance for how to maximize workplace safety when the time to reopen comes. Even then, we will not reduce the risk from covid-19 to zero; that reality should not make us blithe to that risk, or assume that we cannot reduce it; that’s where sound planning and execution is important.
Many are itching to get back to work without considering all of those who have no choice but to be there now. When we join them, how we join them, how we smartly and appropriately resume paused activities — and how we keep the most number of people safe, for the longest possible time — are the questions we should be considering now.