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The Morning Dispatch: What If They Open the Economy, But Nobody Comes?
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The Morning Dispatch: What If They Open the Economy, But Nobody Comes?

Whatever the authorities want, the data show most people are ready to wait it out?

Happy Thursday. Thanks for all your wonderful notes of optimism in response to our “Let Us Know” yesterday. Seeing all the ways—large and small—your lives have improved in 2020 warmed our hearts.

From Susan: “The best thing about 2020 is that I have become a more grateful person. I am more grateful for the people I love and who love me. I have more appreciation for the gift of financial security, for my home and tranquil garden and for the natural beauty that surrounds me. I am grateful for my health. I am grateful to the people who deliver my food and other essentials and thus help keep me safe. A heightened sense of gratitude also has led me to have more empathy for others.”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Wednesday night, there are now 638,111 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States (a 4.7 percent increase from yesterday) and 30,844 deaths (an 18.5 percent increase from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 4.8 percent (the true mortality rate is difficult to calculate due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 3,242,755 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States, 19.7 percent have come back positive. Also, 103,839 Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19 complications, while 52,640 have recovered from the virus.

  • Chinese government officials knew the coronavirus was likely to become a pandemic six days before they warned the public, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press. More than 3,000 people were infected in the interim.

  • The Paycheck Protection Program ran out of funds on Wednesday, leaving many small businesses who applied for loans out in the cold. Senate Republicans have been advocating for a clean bill reinforcing the program with $250 billion, but Senate Democrats have thus far blocked any legislation that does not also appropriate hundreds of billions in funding for other initiatives.

  • An inspector general for the Department of Defense “could not definitively determine” if the White House intervened in the procurement process for a cloud computing contract (that Microsoft eventually won over Amazon) because Defense Department lawyers told witnesses not to discuss communications between the White House and the Pentagon in the probe.

  • The last major Democratic holdout—Sen. Elizabeth Warren—formally endorsed presumptive nominee Joe Biden on Wednesday. When asked by Rachel Maddow if she would accept an invitation to be Biden’s runningmate if asked, Warren said yes.

The Grand Reopening

Over the last three months, President Trump’s coronavirus thought process has swung like a pendulum between two basic arguments: We need to shut down the economy to prevent widespread viral death, and we need to keep the economy rolling to prevent systemic collapse.

This week, the president is swinging back toward the latter. Having set May 1 as a target date to begin opening sectors of the economy again, Trump is reportedly set to unveil guidance for how we plan to get there today. On Wednesday, he spent much of the day on conference calls with various business leaders, discussing such a reopening.

Many of those business leaders were among the dozens of task force members the president listed by name at Tuesday’s briefing, announcements that caught some of them by surprise, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Some of the chief executives whose names the president mentioned were caught off guard, people familiar with the matter said. ‘CEOs of major brands were calling their heads of government affairs. ‘The president just said my name. Why?’ said a representative of a company whose CEO was named to Mr. Trump’s task force. In some cases, CEOs had been approached about getting on a call with the president and agreed, but had not been warned he would be announcing that they were on the task force.”

Trump sounded an optimistic note at the press briefing in the Rose Garden yesterday. “The battle continues, but the data suggest that nationwide we have passed the peak on new cases,” he said, adding, “these encouraging developments have put us in a very strong position to finalize guidelines for states on reopening the country.”

It’s not hard to see why the president is eager to get off the blocks. Every day brings with it some new reminder of how unsustainable the current situation is. Individual payouts have begun from the $2 trillion emergency aid bill that Trump signed into law a little less than three weeks ago, but many won’t see that money for weeks yet. Meanwhile, the $349 billion allocated for emergency forgivable loans to small businesses has already run dry. Not a week has gone by since this shutdown started that unemployment numbers haven’t blown past their already grisly projections. New Federal Reserve data released Wednesday showed that retail sales fell by 8.7 percent last month, the biggest drop since records began in 1992, while industrial production declined by 5.4 percent, the biggest drop since 1946. The numbers are expected to be worse for April.

But according to multiple reports, many of the business leaders on Tuesday’s calls—all of whom are no doubt just as eager to get back to normal as Trump himself—sounded a note of caution that the U.S. was not yet in a position to lift the lockdown. The biggest obstacle: the fact that the U.S. still lacks a sufficient testing regime to track and contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Why are business leaders so concerned about testing? There’s the fact, of course, that they’re just as loath to see further death as the rest of us. But there’s also a powerful economic incentive at play here. When the government lifts its restrictions, that’ll create the conditions for a possible resumption of economic activity. Whether that activity actually resumes, however, will depend on how confident people are that the immediate danger has passed. And the only way to assure them it has passed in their community while the outbreak continues elsewhere is to make testing ubiquitous.

This is another place where the example of Sweden is instructive. Why is the Swedish economy suffering as badly as that of other countries, despite the fact that the government has banned far less economic activity? Because the virus is spreading people there are wary of getting sick, just as they are everywhere else. Their economy is shutting down not because people are prohibited from participating in it, but because their people are choosing by themselves to stay home.

When Will People Come Out? When They Feel It’s Safe.

It all comes back to testing, testing, testing. When it comes to when the economy can be reopened, everything else is downstream from one question: Is our on-the-ground testing operation good enough that the American people can be confident that their government has a handle on where the coronavirus is still lurking? Once we get there, it will be safe to begin the slow, gingerly process of opening up again. But until we do, the economy won’t be able to get back up to anything resembling normal speed again whether authorities declare things open or not. Most people just aren’t going to start piling into movie theaters and restaurants again until they’re confident they won’t be bringing a superbug back home with them.

How do we know this is true? Because it’s both what Americans did immediately prior to the lockdowns and what they say they plan to do once the lockdowns end.

For example, it wasn’t until March 15 that Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati and New York City all officially announced that their bars and restaurants would be limited to takeout orders and delivery. But the day before those orders were announced, sales at restaurants in those cities had already dropped more than half from the same date a year earlier. And March 7, more than a week before the orders, New York was down 10 percent and Cincinnati 14 percent. Why? Because people were already choosing to stay home based on what they had learned about the pandemic regardless of what the government mandated. 

This month Gallup asked respondents how quickly they would “return to their normal activities once the government lifts restrictions and businesses and schools start to reopen.” Nearly three out of four said that would wait and see what happens with the spread of the virus. Only 20 percent said they would return to their normal activities immediately.

Not surprisingly, then, asked when governments should lift mandatory closures, a Morning Consult poll found that 81 percent of respondents said Americans “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” And, despite what the most active Twitter users may say, only 10 percent believed we “should stop social distancing to stimulate the economy, even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus.”

Worth Your Time

  • A consistent theme in recent Coronavirus Task Force briefings has been President Trump’s attempts to rewrite history and retroactively paint his administration as being more on top of the coronavirus threat — and earlier — than it initially was. In The Atlantic, McKay Coppins documents these efforts, and how they play into the president’s re-election strategy. “On February 28, Donald Trump stood before a crowd of supporters in South Carolina and told them to pay no attention to the growing warnings of a coronavirus outbreak in America. The press was ‘in hysteria mode,’ the president said. The Democrats were playing politics. This new virus was nothing compared with the seasonal flu—and anyone who said otherwise was just trying to hurt him. ‘This is their new hoax,’ Trump proclaimed, squinting out from behind a podium adorned with the presidential seal. Six weeks later, the coronavirus has killed more than 25,000 Americans, the U.S. economy has been crippled—and Trump is recasting himself as a pandemic prophet.”

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci has been everywhere in recent weeks as the coronavirus task force looks to spread its social distancing message to a wide array of audiences. But we must admit, aside from his appearance on Pardon My Take last month, this Vanity Fair interview with Peter Hamby might just be our favorite Fauci forum. Can baseball come back? What’s the status of Coachella? How about online dating in the age of COVID?

  • And speaking of baseball, ESPN’s Wright Thompson wrote an excellent profile of Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw as the perennial Cy Young candidate waits for his livelihood to return. Thompson was with Kershaw the day MLB suspended its season. “The sports world came apart not all at once but in bursts and dribbles, minute by minute. Kershaw went back to follow the news with his teammates, and I found a seat near the wall. Uncertainty was palpable in those first hours. The receptionist’s phone kept ringing. Fans asked what to do. People wanted answers.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Jonah’s got a new midweek G-Filesimulacrum, a spiritual successor to his piece earlier in the day about how a failed coronavirus response might give us a new New Deal. What we really need, Jonah argues, is a new Marshall Plan. You can read why here (🔒).

  • Thomas Joscelyn also published a new Vital Interests (🔒) newsletter yesterday, this one on how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fault lines in the U.S. and China power struggle. The questions facing Trump now, Joscelyn writes: “Does the United States continue to work within the framework of existing global institutions, however flawed or corrupt, to extend its influence around the world? Or does the U.S. instead decide to abandon institutions it sees as hopelessly problematic?”

  • The latest Dispatch Podcast features Sarah, Steve, Jonah, and David debating when and how to reopen the economy, federalism and gubernatorial overreach, and President Trump’s decision to pause funding for the WHO. The episode gets its “Kummerspeck” title from the gang’s closing conversation on…ice cream. Mmmm, grief bacon.

  • On the site today, Kevin Kosar details all the ways, between the pandemic and our recent history of close elections, that Congress must be ready to deal with a contested presidential election in the fall.

  • Donald Trump was criticized by the media for his critical comments about the World Health Organization in the Tuesday press briefing. Alec Dent gets to the bottom of those claims in a Dispatch Fact Check.

Let Us Know

Yesterday, DAZN reporter Steve Braband asked his followers, “What VERY SPECIFIC thing do you miss about sports the most?” imploring them to “be as specific as possible.” We gave it a lot of thought.

  • Dozing off on the couch on a Sunday afternoon to the dulcet tones of Jim Nantz announcing in a half-whisper that “that’s an incredibly strong approach by Brooks Koepka.”

  • Parking yourself in your appointed spot in the nosebleed seats at a half-empty Nationals game for five innings, then slouching down to field level, schmoozing your way past an usher, and enjoying yourself for the remainder in style along the first-base line among the diehards and the lobbyists.

  • Mitch Trubisky failing to read the defense’s coverage pre-snap, forcing the Bears to burn a timeout in the third quarter of a game in which they’re down 10.

  • Alex Ovechkin’s signature mini-celebration after firing an unstoppable shot from his “office” in the left faceoff circle and Braden Holtby squirting water from his water bottle high in the air and following the droplets with oddly determined concentration.

  • It’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and Shaq and Ernie Johnson are arguing during the TNT halftime show whether Frank Vogel’s condensed rotation is wearing LeBron too thin. “If he can’t handle the extra minutes, he doesn’t deserve this championship,” Charles Barkley interjects.

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

Photograph by Rich Fury/Getty Images.