The Economy Won’t Recover Until Americans’ Coronavirus Fears Fade

If we reopen it, will they come? That paraphrase of the signature line from “Field of Dreams” illustrates a dilemma facing the Trump administration, along with state and local leaders, as they contemplate when and how to reopen elements of the economy shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

Just because the Trump administration gives word that individuals and businesses can reopen doesn’t mean that most, or even any, of them will do so.

A dozen years ago, former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) caused a minor uproar during the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign when he characterized the nation as in a “mental recession.” His remarks drew outrage, but they accurately describe one of the two predicaments the American economy faces: Both the coronavirus and the fear caused by the virus.

Even as the nation’s leaders work to resolve the first problem, they also must work diligently to resolve the second. When restarting economic activity, all Americans have a voice: They can spend, or not spend, money as they please. If the American public stays home en masse even after public officials lift stay-at-home orders, the “re-opened” economy will look nearly as morose as the current one.

Big Support for Forcing People to Stay Home

Polling shows a surprising level of support for most of the actions taken to curb the virus, even at the expense of the nation’s economy. A Fox News poll taken last week showed that 80 percent of Americans support “a national stay-at-home order for everyone except essential workers.” That comes despite the fact that 50 percent of Americans said they, or someone in their household, had lost a job or had hours reduced because of the virus and related shutdowns.

Why do an overwhelming majority of Americans support such a drastic shutdown of the nation’s economy? The polling shows that, as of April 4-7, most Americans fear the virus:

  • A total of 94 percent are very or somewhat concerned about the spread of the virus in the United States;
  • More than three in four (76 percent) are very or somewhat concerned about catching the coronavirus;
  • Nearly four in five (79 percent) are very or somewhat concerned that they or someone in their family could die from the virus; and
  • Three-quarters (75 percent) believe the worst is yet to come regarding the pandemic.

The American people do worry about the virus’ potential to cause a recession (91 percent are very or somewhat concerned), and inflict economic hardship on their families (79 percent very or somewhat concerned). But the survey shows that, at least as of last week, they fear the virus more than they fear the economic consequences of the virus. Perhaps for this reason, a 47 percent plurality believe President Trump has not taken the virus seriously enough, whereas only 4 percent believe he has overreacted to the pandemic.

Don’t Just Tell Me, Show Me

Some might believe the American people have in fact overreacted to the coronavirus. They of course have their right to hold those beliefs. But trivializing people’s fears—as opposed to reasoning with them in a way that puts them at ease—won’t encourage people to begin resuming their normal lives, and will likely keep the economy stuck in neutral (or sliding further backwards).

Despite the lack of focus on the topic to date, the messaging component of reopening the economy seems critically important to its success—as important as getting the timing right of the reopening. The administration needs to approach the American people where they are—anxious about the virus’ spread—and offer clear explanations not just for what they are doing, but why:

  • Why reopen a given area, sector, or activity now? Why not two weeks ago, or two weeks (or two months) from now?
  • What will the federal government do (and what can it do) regarding interstate travel? What happens to the businessman who needs to fly for work—will a governor in another state attempt to stop him or her from traveling?
  • The administration’s initial proposal to classify areas as high, medium, or low risk makes a great deal of sense. But what metrics will go into those classifications—number of cases, growth in cases, number of deaths, health-care capacity, or something else? Will the criteria remain transparent and objective, and not subject to political manipulation or pressure?
  • What metrics will determine any potential need to reactivate shutdown orders?

This advice applies not just to President Trump, but to governors and other policy makers as well. For instance, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases said Friday that he envisioned a “real degree of normality” by around the time of this fall’s elections. His statement seemed somewhat surprising, given prior comments by Fauci and others about a possible “second wave” of coronavirus infections hitting this fall.

In an evolving response to a pandemic, facts and circumstances can change rapidly, as scientists learn more about the virus, and humans’ responses to it. But whenever scientists change their models, or political leaders alter their guidance and recommendations, both must explain to the public why they have done so. Only transparent data, communications, and explanations can ensure the public buy-in necessary to bring the economy back to life at the appropriate time.

Fix Both the Problems

Half a century ago this week, the Apollo 13 mission—where an on-board explosion turned a potential moon landing into a struggle for three astronauts to survive—captivated the nation. As staffers at NASA’s Mission Control worked feverishly to bring the space travelers safely home, Flight Director Gene Kranz instructed his employees to “Work the problem” (or words to that effect).

With the current pandemic, policymakers need to work the problem—both of them. They must break down the component parts associated with reopening our economic and civic institutions: the conditions that must be met prior to a reopening, the sequencing behind such an effort, and so forth.

But they also must explain openly, clearly, and repeatedly to the American people how and why they are doing so. Doing the former without the latter could result in more confusion, uncertainty, and continued economic stagnation.

The fact that Jim Lovell, the commander of the fateful Apollo 13 mission, survived to write about that experience 50 years on this past weekend speaks to the power of American ingenuity in solving problems, overcoming obstacles, and saving lives. Here’s hoping we see a reprise of that ingenuity for the coronavirus.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.