The federal government’s effort to combat the new coronavirus carries an economic price that is getting higher every day — too high, it appears, for President Donald Trump and some of his advisers. They fear a sharp, brutal downturn that could boost unemployment into double-digits, litter the landscape with bankruptcies and doom his reelection bid.
On Monday, the president expressed impatience: “America will, again, and soon, be open for business. Very soon.” His reason: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” On Tuesday, he said he “would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter” — April 12.
Having declared himself a “wartime president,” Trump assumes he can unilaterally decide to restart the economy and get Americans back to work, companies back to making money and the stock market back to its previous heights. In truth, most of these matters are not under his control.
He can instruct Americans to return to their old ways. But he will be at odds with governors and mayors who have urged or mandated that businesses close and people remain at home. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have imposed stringent measures on their own residents and will keep them in place as long as they see fit.
“Pulling back now, in my view for Chicago, does not make sense at all,” Lightfoot said Tuesday. Pritzker makes it clear he’s about as likely to defer to Trump as he is to get a face tattoo. In his Tuesday news conference, Pritzker stressed, “I want to be 100% clear about what will drive my decision-making in the weeks ahead: science.”
Elected officials elsewhere are likely to do likewise. As of Tuesday, The New York Times reports, “at least 167 million people in 17 states, 18 counties and 10 cities are being urged to stay home.”
Though Democratic and Republican voters diverge somewhat on the need for action, governors of both parties have taken the lead. Ohio’s Mike DeWine, a Republican, issued a stay-at-home edict Sunday, saying, “I don’t know any other way to describe it other than to say we are at war.” GOP governors in Indiana, Massachusetts and West Virginia have adopted the same policy.
They aren’t likely to reverse course merely to accommodate the president. Democratic governors from New York to California will not hesitate to defy him.
In moments of national crisis, power usually flows to the central government. To some extent, that is happening this time, as Congress scrambles to help shuttered businesses and newly unemployed workers. But we are also seeing the reinvigoration of federalism by state leaders who are making decisions without waiting for guidance from Washington.
Corporate executives and small business people cannot be under any illusions about the challenges created by the virus. The nation’s Big Three car companies shut down production under pressure from the United Auto Workers, which would fight any attempt to resume normal operations.
Anyone who owns a hotel, resort, restaurant, hair salon, bar, workout facility or music venue must realize that it’s one thing to open your doors and quite another to attract customers. It would not be easy for the administration to get elementary and secondary schools to reopen or persuade universities to pack students into dormitories and lecture halls.
The professional sports leagues know that resumption of games before spectators would put their own players, coaches and other personnel at risk and might not sell many tickets.
As Yogi Berra once said, “If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.”
Most Americans have come to understand the need for social distancing and self-isolation.
They have learned that exposure to others is dangerous for them and those they care about. As cases of COVID-19 rise, and deaths mount, their aversion to old-fashioned mingling will only increase.
As the epidemic shows up in places where it has not yet been detected, the fear of ordinary Americans will count for more than the desires of the president. The best way to overcome that fear, and its effect on the economy, is to slow the spread of the disease, implement widespread testing and keep hospitals from being fatally swamped. Only then may people feel enough confidence to shift back toward economic life as we knew it.
Trump can tell Americans to go back to life as before. But he may find that what he says doesn’t matter.