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The Morning Dispatch: Our First Look at What COVID-19 Lockdowns Are Doing to Employment
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The Morning Dispatch: Our First Look at What COVID-19 Lockdowns Are Doing to Employment

Plus, is Joe Biden’s coronavirus strategy working?

Happy Friday … except it’s not. The Cubs should be 1-0 right now and tied for first place in the National League Central—but this dang virus postponed Opening Day, the most hallowed of all days for Declan. Now it’s personal.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Wednesday night, there are now 85,840 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States (a 24.5 percent increase from yesterday) and 1,296 deaths (a 25.7 percent increase from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 1.5 percent (the true mortality rate is difficult to calculate due to incomplete testing regimens). About 15.5 percent of the 519,338 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States have come back positive, per the COVID Tracking Project, a separate dataset with slightly different topline numbers.

  • The United States officially surpassed China—a nation with more than four times the population—as the country with the most confirmed coronavirus cases. Many, however, are treating China’s reporting with a healthy dose of skepticism.

  • More than 3.2 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week, by far the biggest single-week jump in U.S. history. 

  • A former staffer for Joe Biden has accused him of sexually assaulting her in 1993.

  • The author of an Imperial College of London study that helped set the blueprint for many Western countries’ coronavirus response testified Thursday that social distancing efforts are on track to keep U.K. coronavirus cases safely below the country’s ICU capacity. 

  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been indicted in the United States on federal drug trafficking charges. The State Department announced a $15 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

  • Coronavirus response is becoming less partisan, according to a new poll from Echelon Insights. Eight in 10 agree that staying home is “essential to slowing the spread of the coronavirus,” and large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say that local officials locking down their communities over coronavirus fears would not make them less likely to support them in the future.

Harrowing Unemployment Figures

Just 57 days after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo that the coronavirus “will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America” by forcing companies to rethink their supply chains, the Department of Labor announced weekly unemployment insurance claims data unlike anything anybody has ever seen.

Seasonally adjusted initial claims came in at 3.28 million—the “highest level of seasonally adjusted initial claims in the history of the seasonally adjusted series,” per a Labor Department release. The second highest? 695,000 in October of 1982. Here’s what that looks like, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, if you can make out that vertical blue line all the way on the right.

“This large increase in unemployment claims was not unexpected,” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a statement. It “results from the recognition by Americans across the country that we have had to temporarily halt certain activities in order to defeat the coronavirus.”

And he’s right—with many sectors of the economy all but grinding to a standstill this month, these numbers were not unforeseen. Goldman Sachs projected 2.25 million initial claims. Citigroup expected 4 million.

Luckily, Congress baked these harrowing estimates into its calculations while hammering out the largest economic relief bill in American history, as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin pointed out in an interview with CNBC Thursday.

“I just think these numbers right now are not relevant,” he said. “Obviously there are people who have jobless claims, and again, the good thing about this bill is the president is protecting those people. … Now with these plans, small businesses hopefully will be able to hire back a lot of those people. Last week they didn’t know if they had protections, they didn’t have any cash, they had no choice.”

The bill—which the Senate approved 96-0 and the House is set to vote on later today—would not only send checks to Americans below certain income thresholds and make available hundreds of billions of dollars in forgivable loans to businesses who maintain their payrolls, but significantly bolster unemployment insurance as well, lessening the blow for those already out of work, including self-employed members of the gig economy.

“I hope these measures will stem payroll losses,” Karen Dynan—former chief economist at the Treasury Department—told The Dispatch in an interview on Thursday. “The stimulus package certainly has a number of positive features that should help mitigate the fallout from the shutdowns.” 

“$2 trillion is a lot of money,” she added, noting it’s about a tenth of the United States’ nominal GDP. “$21 trillion is like a whole year’s worth of GDP, and hopefully this … partial shutdown is for a couple months. So the amount of lost economic activity, it’ll probably be larger than $2 trillion, but $2 trillion could go a long way towards filling that hole.”

“I think the extent to which it’s effective depends on how quickly we can get the money out there to small businesses.”

Dynan recounted some of the struggles the federal government faced in this area in dealing with the financial crisis, during which she was on the staff of the Federal Reserve Board. “We had designed these foreclosure mitigation programs that looked really nice on paper,” Dynan said. “But then when it came to implementation we struggled to get the money out the door … because of practical issues and pipeline issues and capacity issues as well.”

“So I think the fiscal package will eventually stem layoffs. But I think it could be a few weeks before we see the numbers coming down,” she added, noting that it is “very likely” unemployment numbers could continue to get worse in the interim.

Dynan also pointed to the beefed-up unemployment insurance outlined in the bill as a very big deal, particularly for workers in the gig economy. “We are seeing these massive numbers of people suddenly becoming unemployed,” she told us, but “the stimulus package will not only increase the amount that people receive in terms of unemployment insurance benefits but … it expands the group that’s eligible.”

She did not share the concerns of the four Republican senators who pressed for a (failed) amendment vote to cap these benefits, citing “a strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work.”

“We worried a lot about moral hazard during the financial crisis. … We worried people would purposely default on their mortgage so they could go to their servicers and say, ‘Make my loan more generous,’” Dynan remembered. “And at the end of the day, the mechanisms we put in place to try to stop people from doing that just slowed the program down and really prevented the help from getting out there.”

“So when I hear now that this would be a big mistake to structure the aid like this because we worry that it’s going to lead people to quit their jobs, I’m skeptical. I think people—at the end of the day—want to stay working and want to help the economy.”

And once the virus is contained and businesses begin to open back up, Dynan thinks the economy can rebound pretty quickly. “One big difference from the last [financial] crisis is that the U.S. economy was fundamentally strong going into this crisis,” she said. “If we can stem the layoffs, keep small businesses afloat, and prevent households from going delinquent on their debt and losing access to credit, then I think there’s great potential for the economy to come back rapidly. But this is why getting the assistance out there quickly is so important—because the longer it takes, the more likely it is that we’re going to see businesses going bankrupt, and households losing their jobs and being scarred financially in ways that will impede economic recovery once the virus situation normalizes.”

Biden In the Basement

Joe Biden is still running for president. But in the age of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders across the nation, that’s a lot trickier than it sounds. Despite efforts to ramp up his media appearances from his new basement studio and virtual hangouts with supporters, the Biden team is struggling to break through a media environment that is dominated by the staggering infection numbers coming out of New York and the daily media briefings from the White House. In an interview with Yahoo News, President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, said he was “particularly alarmed by the presumptive Democratic nominee’s failure to leverage social media and dazzling visuals while President Trump dominates headlines during the coronavirus pandemic.” 

Last week, Biden promised to start holding shadow press conferences “to show how he would handle the crisis and address what he calls the lies and failures of President Trump.” But in his debut briefing on Monday, he made more news in conservative circles when he said, referring to the legislation that was pending in Congress, “We’re gonna have an opportunity, I believe in the next round here, to use the—my green economy—my Green Deal to be able to generate both economic ground and consistent with the kind of infusion of money as we need into the system to keep it going.” On Thursday, he released his three-point economic plan, which included launching “a task force” to oversee the new spending bill and “bring[ing] the leaders of Congress together to build the next deal.” Hardly the types of ideas to garner much attention these days. 

Biden’s team announced a forthcoming newsletter and podcast and claimed that he’s racked up 16 million video views across all of his videos and platforms since Saturday. Although to give you some context, Vox’s single YouTube video on how the wildlife trade contributed to the pandemic alone received close to 20 million views.

And all while President Trump’s approval ratings continue to climb. In fact, based on the latest Gallup survey, his approval rating now matches the highest it has ever been in Gallup surveys.

As Politico’s Marc Caputo noted, “Biden’s been outgunned by President Donald Trump and outshone by some of the nation’s governors, among them New York’s Andrew Cuomo, whose crisis response efforts are drawing rave reviews.”

In the meantime, Bernie Sanders is still hanging around. “We are winning the ideological debate,” he said, “we are going to virtual campaigning, doing events almost every single night.” And with so many primaries across the country delayed in favor of social distancing, Biden has no realistic chance now of getting the necessary number of delegates to clinch the nomination until at least June. 

So that’s going to mean a lot more time in the basement for Joe Biden.

Worth Your Time

  • We’ve received lots of great reader questions and comments in recent days about the best way to present coronavirus infection data in an informative manner. Declan was a statistics minor in college, but he’s nowhere near as good at this stuff as the folks over at FiveThirtyEight. We recommend you read this piece from Jay Boice to get the most fully informed sense of where we stand and what we can expect to see in the coming days.

  • China has taken pains in recent months to wipe away the memory of where the coronavirus came from—partially by a propaganda campaign blaming America for the outbreak, partially by a charm campaign to send or sell medical supplies to other hard-hit countries. This fascinating column in The Economist examines the ways these two strategies intersect and diverge in China’s attempt to increase its own presence on the world stage: “It remains unclear whether China wants to occupy newly vacant positions of global leadership—if that involves accepting multilateral rules and norms that might constrain its actions in the future … Sowing distrust and division abroad is a risky game for China. Another master of disinformation, Russia, can sell its oil and gas even amid global chaos. As a would-be tech superpower that has profited mightily from globalization, China has much to lose from a world which cannot agree on basic facts.” 

  • When reports of coronavirus first came from China, Texas supermarket chain H-E-B dusted off its pandemic response plan—established in 2005 after H5N1 spread in China—and went to work. Texas Monthly has an article exploring how its protocols are working. (Fairly well, though H-E-B’s president says nobody predicted toilet paper being in such high demand: “That was something we still kind of have a hard time understanding.”)

  • Anthony Rizzo—the Chicago Cubs’ first baseman and who Declan wants to be when he grows up—wrote an essay for ESPN about what it’s like to be a baseball player missing one of the most important days of the season: Opening Day. “This is for our parents and grandparents. We want them to be around for a long time,” said Rizzo. “It is tough being away from my parents right now, but I know it is the right thing to do. So we have to stay together and connected in other ways.”

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Some people appear to be spending their quarantine time more productively than others. 

Toeing the Company Line

  • Languishing at home alone with the dogs has its upsides for Jonah: He’s firing out new episodes of The Remnant at a blazing pace. Yesterday’s edition features an entirely coronavirus-free interview with R Street’s Shoshana Weissman, talking occupational licensing, memes, Judaism, and online dating. 

  • In his new French Press, David has the most concise and devastating rebuttal we’ve seen yet of the argument—put forward by some prominent Republicans in recent days—that “seniors should be willing to ‘take a chance’ with their own lives to put the economy back to work.” 

  • Intrepid Dispatch fact-checker Alec Dent has taken a look at President Trump’s recent claim that Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York refused to buy 16,000 low-priced ventilators in 2015. Read it here.

  • On the site today, Scott Ganz looks back at Ford’s efforts to use its assembly line technology to ramp up airframe production during World War II. “By mid-1944, Ford indeed was producing one B-24 per hour as promised. However … [b]y the time that the Willow Run plant was operating at peak capacity, wartime demand for new bombers was already on the decline.”

Let Us Know

In yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, we asked for suggestions about ways people fortunate enough not to have been economically devastated by the coronavirus shutdown could put their forthcoming aid checks to good use. Thanks for all your heartwarming responses—here are a few of our favorites: 

  • From Paul: “My nomination for a deserving charity for folks who don’t need their $1,200 check is JDRF.org (formerly Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). People with Type 1 diabetes already have been dealt a crappy hand (having to monitor your blood glucose levels constantly is a drag). Being immuno-compromised in the midst of a viral pandemic is injury on insult.”

  • From Jenny: “Start tipping service workers like you’re a rock star! Sure we can’t go out yet, but someday we will be able to venture out again. When that day comes, go out more often and pretend you’re Warren Buffett. It’s going to feel great to be out on the town again, you’ll stimulate business, and dropping $100 tips will make you feel amazing. The best part? You’ll get to see the person you are helping and feel more of a connection to your action.”

  • From Gary: “Our $2,400 will go to the local food bank and Meals on Wheels, organizations having the most direct pipeline to where the need is.”

  • From R. Keith: “Doctors without Borders is going to face the biggest challenge of its history when the coronavirus takes hold in less developed countries (think Africa, South America, parts of Southeast Asia). They’ll need all the support they can get.”

  • From Lydia: “I’m planning on donating my ‘check’ to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS.org) They provide support and programming to families who have lost someone serving in the US military. It doesn’t matter the cause of death: combat loss, accident, suicide, or illness. They support parents, like myself, spouses, children, siblings, grandparents, etc. and are currently providing all of their programming online since the local and regional support groups are unable to meet in person.” 

  • From Joel: “My local church is setting up a benevolence fund solely for this purpose. Pooling funds gives a couple advantages: We can target known needs within our community. Further, it creates a ready outlet for members, reducing the choice burden of where to donate while also helping create a little social accountability, making people less likely to simply save it. Other local civic groups like the Rotary or Lion’s Clubs do something similar. I figure if the feds are going to airdrop a load of cash on all of us, we can strengthen our ‘little platoons’ while meeting particular needs.”

  • And from Bill: “Ronald McDonald House Charities has announced it is discontinuing all of its volunteer activities, and will no longer accept new families needing to stay near their sick children — all due to coronavirus concerns. They have particular concern because some of their clients have low immune levels, and because family members spend a lot of time in hospitals. There are 184 houses in the U.S. All are independently owned and managed, and on average only receive 6% of their funding from the national charity and McDonald’s corp. So — the need is acute. A typical dinner for clients at an average size house costs about $200, typically provided by volunteers. Ronald McDonald House staff are at extreme risk, yet continue to eep their doors open. It’s a great organization and a great cause.”

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Alec Dent (@Alec_Dent), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images.