Commentary: Rushing to reopen the economy during the coronavirus outbreak could be a disaster. Here's why
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Commentary: Rushing to reopen the economy during the coronavirus outbreak could be a disaster. Here's why

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Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update during a press conference in the Red Room at the State Capitol on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update during a press conference in the Red Room at the State Capitol on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/TNS)

The staggering economic consequences of the social distancing edicts adopted across most of the nation last month have led to a vigorous debate over whether, to use President Donald Trump's term, the "cure" for the coronavirus pandemic is worse than the virus itself.

With more than 16 million Americans seeking unemployment benefits after losing their jobs in recent weeks, the argument is worth having. The groans were loud and on point when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared last month that if "everything" state government did saved "just one life," the edicts would be worth it. Nearly 1 million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment since nonessential businesses were shuttered to slow the virus' spread. Increasingly, skeptics note the harsh health toll of economic anxiety, including its role in increasing suicide. If Cuomo's standard is the norm, how could any state allow motorcycles? Skydiving? Cliff climbing?

By Monday, announcements by Trump and two of his frequent adversaries - Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom - made clear that they are all eager to end the restrictions and accept some risk by limiting social distancing before too long. California, Oregon and Washington will sync their efforts. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are coordinating their responses as well.

The big question, of course, is when. Two others are: Are these leaders and members of the newly named White House task force on reopening the economy getting ahead of what experts think? And is there a chance that the decisions made going forward will backfire spectacularly?

I'd argue that the answers are yes and yes.

There is some genuinely excellent news for Californians. The University of Washington computer model that's been touted for its insights into the pandemic suggests the crest will peak in California this week and that COVID-19 deaths and new coronavirus cases will begin to decline in the Golden State. And Newsom's first-in-the-nation stay-home edict on March 19 may save him from the ignominy he would have deserved for trusting Trump to help California and other states as vigorously as a normal president would have.

But the consensus of a dozen economists interviewed by the New York Times about the idea the economy could be back to normal by early summer was that it reflected "at best mildly informed guesses" by political leaders.

And history has daunting lessons for policymakers. Until there is a vaccine for coronavirus, it will remain something that spreads quite readily from person to person, and the spreaders will often be asymptomatic and unaware of the danger they pose. In history's worst pandemic - the Spanish flu apocalypse of 1918-1919, which infected one-third of the planet and killed 50 million people - public health authorities twice believed they had controlled influenza only to see it come roaring back. Both the second and the third waves of Spanish flu were far more deadly than the first.

There is a good reason to think that won't necessarily happen with coronavirus in the United States. But that reason also shows why reopening public life isn't anything like flicking an on/off switch on the economy.

It's that Americans - who are far better informed and much more prosperous than they were a century ago - aren't likely to salute Trump, Newsom and Cuomo (especially Trump, who depicted coronavirus as no big deal until Wall Street began to collapse) and return to their old way of living after being directed to do so. Just because political leaders want a return to normalcy doesn't mean that it will happen.

We shouldn't just expect millions of Americans to routinely wear face masks in public going forward - as millions of Asians have for decades - or to be far more aware of and worried about everyone's coughs and sneezes. We should understand that being in crowded places now seems dangerous to anyone who is following developments - and many of these people will never stop thinking that way even when national leaders declare the virus crisis to be behind us.

Shelly Palmer, an often-insightful technology consultant and blogger, wrote Sunday that he thinks profound changes in consumer behavior are going to be the new norm, and that it's possible that half of all restaurants and bars never reopen.

In such a world, coronavirus' second wave isn't likely to be nearly as bad as its first. Unfortunately, in such a world, the broad prosperity of 2019 will seem like a distant dream - unless humanity comes up with a vaccine, and quickly.

Without one, prepare for a great cratering of society. And, born of poverty, another pandemic - one of individual depression.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Chris Reed is deputy editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial and opinion section. Twitter: @chrisreed99. Email: chris.reed@sduniontribune.com.

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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