The Corner

Economy & Business

Charting the Path Back to Semi-Normalcy

A man wearing a protective mask walks a dog on a shopping street during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Vienna, Austria, April 6, 2020. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

In today’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Bill McGurn quotes Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute as saying, “My sense is that we can get 90 percent of our lives back, if we have a really well-deployed testing infrastructure deployed, and we’re testing people and are identifying people who are sick and pulling them out.”

Obviously, we need testing (and possibly related symptom checks, such as taking people’s temperatures) to be ubiquitous, quick, and frequent. But once we have that — and a supply of masks, and maybe hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrance to every building — it opens the doors, both metaphorically and literally in some cases. Disney’s executive chairman Robert Iger told Barron’s, “Just as we now do bag checks for everybody that goes into our parks, it could be that at some point we add a component of that that takes people’s temperatures, as a for-instance.”

One question we can and should be asking is what jobs would be safe to do with people standing six feet apart, wearing masks, and washing their hands as frequently as Lady MacBeth.

Could restaurants re-open, and operate at something like one-third their regular capacity? Many restaurateurs wouldn’t like the restriction, but the income from one-third of the dining room capacity plus take-out and delivery would be higher than just take-out and delivery. (Again, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.”)

Could some assembly lines safely operate with everyone six feet apart and wearing masks and gloves?

You could probably reopen most of America’s retail stores under this scenario. Already grocery stores and pharmacies are operating, encouraging social distancing and limiting capacity in some cases. Could most other stores work that way? Step into the Gap or Old Navy, keep your distance from everyone, keep your mask on . . .  we would still have to work through issues like dressing rooms. The health risk for shopping for groceries with these safety guidelines isn’t all that different from shopping for home goods at Bed Bath and Beyond, Ikea, Williams and Sonoma, gadgets at the Apple Store or Best Buy, sporting goods at Bass Pro shops, books at Barnes and Noble, and so on. (Some stores are still open, and limiting the number of customers inside at any one time.) Movie theaters could reopen, with the audience spaced apart every few seats. Perhaps this would even work for sports stadiums, concerts, and other events.

This wouldn’t bring back the entire U.S. economy — but it would start getting people back to work in larger numbers. The question is how much this sort of mask-wearing, hands-washing, spaced-out economic activity would increase the risk of further infections. At some point, the economic consequences will get so severe that the risk will become acceptable.

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