Many businesses cautious about restarting economy amid virus

Michelle R. Smith and Dee-Ann Durbin
Associated Press

Providence, R.I. — President Donald Trump wants the country open for business by mid-April, but some experts warn it’s not as easy as flipping a switch: Economies run on confidence, and that is likely to be in short supply for as long as coronavirus cases in the United States are still rising.

Trump this week said he wants businesses “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” which falls on April 12. That contradicts many public health experts, who warn that restrictions should only be lifted gradually and once more data about infection rates is available. They expect efforts to curb the disease will continue for several months at least.

Carlos Gutierrez, left, and Marcos Morales prepare take-out orders at East Side Pockets, a small restaurant near Brown University, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Providence, R.I.

The president told U.S. governors in a letter Thursday that the federal government will rank counties according to their risk of a coronavirus outbreak, as he seeks to return Americans to work by his aspirational deadline.

“This is what we envision: Our expanded testing capabilities will quickly enable us to publish criteria, developed in close coordination with the nation’s public health officials and scientists, to help classify counties with respect to continued risks posed by the virus,” he wrote.

Despite wild swings in financial markets and signs that unemployment is surging — both of which could hurt Trump in an election year — many businesses say it’s not clear that reopening will be even an option in a few weeks: They have to follow the orders set in each state, and many of those are open-ended or could be extended at any time. They are worried that opening too soon could be seen as irresponsible. And even if they did reopen, would customers come if the virus isn’t under control?

“He’s not being realistic. How can you open if the cases are climbing day after day?” asked Paul Boutros, who owns East Side Pockets, a small restaurant that has lost most of its business since nearby Brown University sent students home.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, are cautious. They say reopening is a call health experts will have to make; in the meantime, they’re focused on getting financial help for businesses.

Some business leaders and workers, of course, back the idea of a shorter shutdown. In a weekend post on Twitter, former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said those at lower risk should return to work in a few weeks.

“Extreme measures to flatten the virus ‘curve’ is sensible — for a time — to stretch out the strain on health infrastructure. But crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue — and beyond,” he said.

Taggart Barron, who is in finance and is working from home in Bentonville, Arkansas, said he would go into the office more if he were allowed — and that would mean he would be spending more, too, like on lunches out.

“I worry about the human and economic impact of a forced shutdown with no defined end in sight,” said Barron. “We are killing a fly with a missile.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — whose dire warnings and sometimes scolding tone in his daily briefings have often made him a foil for Trump during the outbreak — has suggested a staged opening eventually. He said that perhaps younger people who appear to be less affected or people who had recovered from the virus — if scientists are able to confirm that means they have immunity — could start to go back to work.

Bloomberg contributed.