These recent weeks, as infections have soared in the South and West, fueled by younger adults gathering in bars and at house parties in some regions, delivered a gut punch to businesses that had grown optimistic amid back-to-back months of job gains.
“Travel can’t come back unless people act responsibly,” said Tori Barnes, executive vice president for public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association.
The travel industry knows the high level of scrutiny it is under — most people still don’t fully trust hotels, resorts and airports to be safe enough for them to spend their ever-more-precious dollars for travel during a pandemic. But as they work to make safety improvements, these corporate entities worry those advances will be squandered because so many irresponsible people have continued to spread the virus and those who are trying to play by the rules do not know which rules to follow.
“People just really want consistency,” said Michelle Russo, chief communications officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber spearheaded a letter to President Trump, Vice President Pence and the National Governors Association, writing in concert with other powerful trade groups such as the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers, pleading for a nationwide standard on when masks should be mandatory.
It’s not just that industry titans want easy-to-comprehend rules for business managers — they also want a set of regulations clear enough to make it easier for businesses to deny entry to consumers who will not wear face coverings or adhere to social-distance guidelines.
U.S. Travel and the Chamber are part of the cluster of influential trade associations that have signed on to a privately run market research consortium they call the “Back to Normal Barometer,” maintained by the Sports and Leisure Research Group, Engagious and ROKK Solutions.
What the trade associations learned is that there are two solid blocs of people, those who are “ready to go” right back to those activities that they love and those who are adamantly opposed to taking any risk until there is a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus.
Then there are those in the middle — “assurance seekers” — who want to know about safety protocols, particularly from local health officials who have a nonpartisan veneer of trust, before they jump back into their old routines.
Barnes said that throughout May and June, as the numbers of deaths and infections dropped, industries grew more optimistic that the “right layer of assurances” was being reached.
“Oh, okay, well, within three months, people will be willing to travel,” she recalled thinking.
But public polling backs up what these trade associations have known: The boomlet of optimism in the late spring has faded amid social unrest from the racial justice protests fueled by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the spike in covid-19 cases across the South and West.
In early May, just 29 percent of Americans were willing to fly on planes, according to an ABC/Ipsos poll, a share that grew to 44 percent in early June, but by later in the month, the number had fallen to just 36 percent.
Even people’s willingness to eat at restaurants has been whipsawed by fear of the virus. In early June, 59 percent of respondents said they were willing to eat at restaurants, up from 41 percent in early May. The number ticked down to 56 percent in late June.
That’s why corporate America is starting to embrace face coverings and stricter federal safety guidelines, even though Trump has personally refused to wear a mask and has suggested that most issues should be left to governors to handle.
In 2019, the U.S. travel industry supported more than 15 million jobs, but by May 1, as the world shut down, more than 8 million of those jobs had disappeared, according to Barnes. Some of the jobs have returned, but another widespread shutdown would permanently sink many of those businesses.
In their letter to Trump, Pence and the governors, the Chamber and other groups asked for federal data points about particular regions so that, if the virus were to spread that much, local officials could institute a mandatory mask policy.
Otherwise, Russo said, business owners are caught in the middle. On one side are libertarians who become angry at retail and restaurant managers who try to deny them service for not wearing masks, while the more cautious consumers complain to these managers about other consumers being allowed in without wearing masks.
“Really, the consumers are going to decide. There are going to be those super fans, but with everybody else, you have to have consistency,” Russo said. “Right now, there’s not a lot of consistency, and that just does nothing to build confidence with consumers.”
As Congress begins to negotiate another rescue package this month, these interest groups have some familiar business-friendly requests that their lobbyists will push. First and foremost are liability protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits as companies try to reopen. Democrats have opposed such protections, complaining that workers and customers could be put at great risk by companies made reckless by the legal shield. House Democrats included stronger worker protections in their legislation.
But businesses also want to see other critical measures addressed. Some want to see the Paycheck Protection Program, a grant scheme started by Congress and administered through the Small Business Administration, repurposed before it expires in early August. With $130 billion of funding remaining, the PPP could be targeted for more-marginal businesses that cannot operate at 50 percent capacity.
Barnes said there are hundreds of local marketing agencies that play key roles in luring conventions and tourists to their towns and cities, all now devastated by the pandemic shutdowns but so far ineligible to tap into the program.
Russo said industry is also pushing for federal help in two areas that don’t regularly appear on U.S. Chamber of Commerce wish lists: child care and mass transit. They’re two of the biggest obstacles to workers being able to return to their places of employment.
Even with these measures, the economic comeback cannot really begin until enough consumers are satisfied that nearly all other consumers are playing by the same rules.
“We really do think the only way to restart the economy is restart travel,” Barnes said. “The only way we’re going to do that is through health and safety.”