At Christie’s Salon in Glen Burnie, Md., the safety-first atmosphere was markedly different than before the pandemic, said front desk assistant Madison Bush. On Saturday there were only five people in the store, about half of the usual crowd, and all employees wore gloves and masks.
“It’s great to be back, but it’s different,” she said. “It’s a new way of living at this point.”
Though states accounting for roughly one-third of the $21 trillion U.S. economy remain largely closed, according to Goldman Sachs, real-time indicators of business activity show the first stirrings of a recovery.
In South Carolina, restaurant reservations on Friday were down 69 percent from one year ago, an improvement over the 100 percent year-over-year decline on May 3, according to the OpenTable online network.
Restaurants in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee also reported the return of a significant number of diners.
Likewise, requests for driving directions on Apple Maps and gasoline demand have risen, according to Ryan Sweet, senior director at Moody’s Analytics.
Such reports suggest the worst may be over for the economic plunge that began in March, some economists say.
First-time claims for unemployment insurance fell by 195,000 last week, though they remained exceptionally high at nearly 3 million, and there were indications in the Labor Department data that some furloughed workers could be returning to work, according to Barclays.
“These could be early signs that the gradual recovery we anticipate in [the second half of this year] is beginning to take shape,” Barclays economists wrote in a research note.
Consumers began tiptoeing back into the marketplace even before state governors relaxed their stay-at-home orders. Progress toward an economic rebound depends more on people’s confidence that it is safe to venture out than on government dictates.
Total credit and debit card spending bottomed out in early April and began creeping higher by the middle of that month, Goldman said.
Total economic activity has increased “only slightly faster” in states that have officially reopened, Goldman said, though the improvement is more noticeable for specific businesses such as retail outlets and restaurants.
Still, the battered economy faces an uncertain and protracted convalescence. Barclays said the second quarter will likely see the economy contract at an annual rate of 40 percent, a stunning figure that exaggerates the epic decline because it assumes the three-month plummet will continue for the full year. Most economists anticipate a rebound in the second half of 2020.
The situation in China, where the global pandemic originated in December, may offer a road map for what the United States can expect as it reopens. As Chinese authorities gradually loosened restrictions on freedom of movement, factories have returned to normal more quickly than have businesses with significant face-to-face customer contact.
China’s industrial production increased in April, exceeding expectations, Barclays said. But service businesses, such as Shanghai Disneyland, are just beginning to restart operations at a greatly reduced capacity. And Chinese consumer spending declined again last month.
Clouding every economic forecast is uncertainty over the pandemic’s course. Other countries have seen renewed outbreaks as they have reopened for business. Chinese officials closed down three cities with a combined population of 13 million to quell renewed covid-19 flare-ups, according to Barclays.
In Maryland, Ross Benincasa, executive director of Discover Easton, said store owners in the Eastern Shore community had measured expectations about what reopening would mean. A sizable number remain uncomfortable opening their doors.
“We’re realizing that this is going to be a long-term rebuilding process,” he said. “You’re going to have those locals that come out right away or those people from the city who come out right away to support the businesses, but long term is that traffic going to keep coming out?”
While tourists haven’t immediately flocked to Easton, the town lies on the road to Ocean City, and Benincasa said he saw traffic this weekend that resembled a summer day.
“We definitely saw a pretty significant uptick,” he said. “I hope that everything works out well down there. It’s a bit scary to see that many people rushing into a place right now.”
Some economists cautioned that it was premature to say the downturn will not get worse.
“We are seeing jobless claims slow in their growth, but beyond that, I don’t think we have much data suggesting we know where rock bottom is yet,” said Megan Greene, senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Many of the 36.5 million workers who have filed for unemployment benefits over the past eight weeks are still awaiting their first check. And many businesses that survived the initial shock may yet fail if consumer spending remains subdued, she said.
Even if the worst is over, the U.S. economy will be scarred by the pandemic-inspired sudden stop that occurred in March.
“The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent, significantly worse than any recession since World War II,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said Wednesday. “The recovery may take some time to gather momentum.”
Some industries will be particularly slow to return to their customary pace of activity.
On Friday, the number of airline passengers using Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, for example, rose 46 percent from May 1. But at just 250,467, it remains a sliver of last year’s 2.7 million travelers on the same date, according to the TSA.
Hopes for a smooth recovery got a boost from new research showing that summer heat, humidity, abundant sunshine and opportunities for people to get outside should combine to inhibit — though not halt — the spread of the coronavirus.
A working paper and database developed by researchers at institutions including Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined a host of weather conditions, such as temperature, relative humidity and precipitation, at 3,739 locations worldwide to determine the “relative covid-19 risk due to weather.”
Average temperatures above 77 degrees are associated with a reduction in the virus’s transmission, they concluded.
But infectious-disease experts caution that any benefit from summer conditions would likely be lost if people abandon practices that limit infections, such as social distancing.
Lee Tyler, a manager at Fisher’s Popcorn on the boardwalk in Ocean City, said more visitors have come as the weather warmed, though the crowds are still not as large as in a typical May.
“Everyone’s keeping their distance, being respectful of personal space,” Taylor said. “I think the folks are still being cautious.”
In recent days, at least two states have changed the way they report information on covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, while federal officials have feuded over their approach to collecting fatality statistics.
In Colorado, public health officials began counting deaths from the coronavirus to include only patients whose death certificates specifically list the cause as covid-19.
The change resulted in a significant downward revision of the state’s official death toll. Colorado now lists 878 deaths “from” the virus and 1,150 deaths “among” covid-19 patients. The department had initially counted all deaths among people who tested positive for the virus.
Virginia state officials, meanwhile, said Thursday they would no longer include the results of antibody tests in their tally of individuals tested for the coronavirus, a practice that had been criticized as exaggerating the state’s efforts to control its spread.
In developing reopening recommendations, White House officials have battled with their counterparts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. On Thursday, the CDC released six short “decision trees” while the rest of its lengthy proposal languished at the White House, where it has been under review for weeks.
Nearly 1.5 million people in the United States have been stricken with covid-19 since the first case was detected in January. More than 87,000 Americans have died from it.
On Saturday, President Trump, who is spending the weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat, took to Twitter to congratulate himself for his handling of the pandemic.
“We’ve done a GREAT job on Covid response, making all Governors look good, some fantastic (and that’s OK), but the Lamestream Media doesn’t want to go with that narrative, and the Do Nothing Dems talking point is to say only bad about ‘Trump’. I made everybody look good, but me!,” the president wrote.
Meryl Kornfield, Greg Schneider, Lenny Bernstein, Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Andrew Freedman and Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.