Thursday, May 7, 2020

What's the rush? Consumers rule -- May 7, 2020 column


“We’re all in this together.”

Those encouraging words burble from politicians, TV commercials and the public address system in the supermarket as you survey still-empty shelves.

Are we in this together? Not really.

As COVID-19 ravages the country, with more than 1.2 million confirmed cases and more than 73,000 deaths, the disease disproportionately affects the elderly, people of color and the poor.

Meanwhile, the political chasm grows wider and deeper.

President Donald Trump and many Republican governors are pushing to reopen the economy – ignoring the White House’s own guidelines on how to do so safely.

The guidelines include a 14 day-trend of declining COVID-19 cases or of positive tests as a percent of tests. In more than half the states easing restrictions, both measures are trending upwards, not down, the New York Times reported.

But there are signs we’re in this together in one way. Most Americans are united around an idea: Don’t rush to reopen. Do it right.

The angry protesters who demand their states be “liberated” get oodles of news coverage, but they are a minority. Most Americans say they are willing to stay home and observe social distancing a while longer. To do otherwise is to court later waves of disease and future lockdowns, which could be disastrous.

Many recent polls have found a strong majority of Americans want the government to slow the spread of the virus first, even if the economy is hurt in the short run. Rather than pretending everything is fine, elected officials should respond accordingly.

Two-thirds of people say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store and nearly eight in 10 said they would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll reported this week.

Interestingly, people in states with looser restrictions reported levels of discomfort similar to those in states with stricter rules.

Six in 10 people support stay-at-home restrictions and more than half are more concerned about stopping the virus’s spread than about the economic fallout, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last month.

Americans by vast majorities are not ready to return to school, go back to work, attend large sports events or eat in restaurants, a PBS-NPR-Marist poll reported.

And, remember, it’s consumers who hold the keys to the car. If they aren’t willing to take it for a spin, it’s sitting in the driveway.

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell warned April 29 that while stay-at-home and social distancing orders stopped the economy cold, the economy won’t heal until consumers feel COVID-19 is under control.

“It’s worth remembering that the measures we are taking to contain the virus represent an investment in our individual and collective health,” Powell said April 29.

So what’s the rush? Trump believes his reelection depends on a booming economy. He acknowledges reopening will mean the sacrifice of American lives.

“Will some people be affected? Yes,” he said on his trip to Arizona Tuesday. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”

On Wednesday, he said the country “may very well” need to accept greater loss of life as the economy reopens. He insists, despite polls to the contrary, that social distancing rules are not sustainable.

The economic ruin that has swamped the country is horrific and unprecedented. Thirty-three million Americans have filed for unemployment, and the picture is likely to get much worse before it finally gets better, Powell said.

To reopen successfully, we need reliable widespread testing and contact tracing.

Real national leadership would acknowledge that reality and move to make testing and tracing a national priority, not left to each state.

Real national leadership would advise patience while scientists develop a vaccine and effective treatments.

Americans will make their own decisions for themselves and their families. Just because the government says you should go back out and spend money doesn’t mean you must.

If masks are voluntary, as Trump insists, so too is shopping at the mall, going to bars and restaurants and getting a manicure.

Be smart. Staying home, covering your face and observing social distancing are still the safest bet.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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