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Opinion There is no easy road to reopening Virginia

Cars and trucks with protesters who want to lift all novel coronavirus restrictions drive on Ninth Street by the Virginia State Capitol Building on April 22 as a special session of the Virginia General Assembly was in a special session. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) took some heat for not being as aggressive as his counterparts across the Potomac in his response to the coronavirus outbreak. Northam’s announcement Monday about reopening the commonwealth for business is likely to stoke the coals of outrage once again — from all sides.

They should save their outrage. They’ll need that emotional energy, and a lot more, for what is likely to be a very long, very difficult recovery process.

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Northam extended the shutdown of so-called nonessential businesses until the wee hours of May 15. On that day, and only if the data are all pointing (mostly) in the right direction, the restrictions will begin to ease. Virginia will join its neighbors West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky in making the move from almost complete stop to slow forward roll.

Those who believe opening the doors of commerce even a tad will jeopardize lives and invite even greater problems will chastise Northam for moving much too fast.

Those who have chafed at the comparatively mild restrictions applied in Virginia since late March will say any reopening plan won’t go far enough and will all but guarantee greater economic damage.

That will put Northam in the middle — neither reckless nor timid. And that’s a good place for him and Virginia to be.

It will also be a bow to reality: Lifting the restrictions Northam imposed in March was always inevitable. The question has been when to start and how to do so.

We’ll have firm answers to both in a couple of days.

But a word of caution for those who are demanding a full and rapid reopening: Just because the restrictions are eased, plenty of limitations will remain — perhaps well into the summer.

Expecting life and business to immediately return to the pre-shutdown days is wishful thinking.

If anything, the challenges facing a reopened Virginia are enormous. As Richmond Federal Reserve Bank President Tom Barkin wrote, Virginia and the nation will have to contend with what is likely to be a smaller, less productive economy.

Barkin sees the need for extensive job retraining, particularly for “the large number of low-end service workers displaced by this crisis.”

He also believes there could be more widespread adoption of what he calls “new productivity levers,” such as “retail self-checkout, food delivery, telehealth and … online education … as surely online shopping will as well.”

These won’t come without their own costs. Barkin thinks “some government incentive” to adopt these and other tools will be necessary “to restore confidence in an uncertain environment.”

That won’t come as good news to those who’ve lost service-sector jobs. It’s very possible the pain they’ve endured over the last few weeks is only just beginning.

A smaller, less vibrant economy is terrible news for Virginia lawmakers, who may have to make do with even less tax revenue. The days of $135 billion biennial budgets may not return for a very, very long time. Instead, the commonwealth’s political class may have to get used to retrenchment and the dreaded “A” word: austerity.

And as for Virginians themselves? Barkin says he’s a “big believer in the creative capacity of American workers and businesses” to overcome any challenges that lie ahead.

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There’s plenty of reason to believe in the optimistic case. Virginia has overcome revolution, civil war, depressions, panics and pandemics before. It won’t be different this time.

But expecting a quick, easy, painless rebound to life as it was back in early March is foolish.

The question we need to ask isn’t when the gym will be open or the school will be back in session. It’s what sort of Virginia emerges from the long, difficult process that lies ahead.

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