For one thing, Trump is not the one who decided to shut everything down: He never issued a nationwide stay-at-home order. We are sequestered and socially distanced because our governors and mayors told us we needed to be. And we continue housebound, wearing masks when we infrequently venture outside and dutifully scrubbing our hands when we return, because we understand the need to protect our health and that of others. I’d love it if everything suddenly went back to normal. But I know that isn’t possible.
Imagine that Trump were to unilaterally set a date certain for social distancing to end — May 1, say, or May 15, or perhaps June 1. Imagine, improbably, that all state and local officials went along. What would you do?
Would you go to the office as though the covid-19 pandemic had never happened, as if patients were not still fighting for breath and life in intensive care units? If you’ve been working from home, would going back to the office even be an option you would consider? You will recall that private companies were early to institute work-from-home policies, even before local governments issued blanket orders. Will business executives order employees back into their cubicles if the danger remains that they will infect one another, leading to further shutdowns?
Would you feel safe on a crowded bus, commuter train or subway car? What about in a carpool: How would you feel if someone in the back seat were to cough? If you work in retail, how would you interact with customers? At arm’s length, wearing a mask and gloves?
Keeping the economy in an induced coma is causing great hardship, and the nation cannot remain locked down indefinitely. But we need to be sensible and realistic about how we resume our lives and about what the new normal is likely to look like.
Ideally, we would have universal testing so we would know who has already had the virus — and thus presumably is no longer at risk — and who hasn’t. Testing in this country has been spotty and inadequate, however, and Trump has said universal testing is not an option. I wonder if some large companies might eventually begin to take matters into their own hands, offering tests to their own employees — assuming quick, reliable tests become widely available — and taking temperatures at the door.
There is no way the resumption of economic activity could begin everywhere at once. States such as Washington and California, where authorities issued stay-at-home orders early and apparently succeeded in “flattening the curve” of infections and hospitalizations, might be able to start lifting their lockdowns sooner rather than later. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said Monday that “the worst is over” in his devastated state; he can at least begin thinking about a phased restart. But in much of the rest of the country, the pandemic has not yet peaked. Some regions clearly will begin flickering to life before others.
And some sectors of the economy should be able to recover faster than others. Many white-collar companies may bring some workers back into the office, perhaps on a rotating basis, their workstations properly spaced out, while other employees continue to work from home. But workers in hotels, restaurants, nail salons and barbershops can’t do their jobs without being at their workplaces, some of which require close proximity with their customers.
Trump says he wants to be a “cheerleader” for the country, and there’s an obvious political reason he wants the economy brought back to life as soon as possible. But ultimately the decisions we make are going to dictate when that happens.
There will come a time when you feel comfortable going out to dinner and a movie, or standing in an airport security line, or going to the ballpark for a baseball game. But our lives will reboot gradually, perhaps haltingly, and it doesn’t matter how frantically Trump pushes the “on” button.