Howes: Spreading virus, government response freeze robust economy

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of White House Coronavirus Task Force, addresses a news conference Monday.

The mother of all economic shutdowns is underway.

In a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus, elected leaders and their public-health advisers at all levels of government are moving to restrict the movements of millions of Americans in ways most of us have never seen, much less experienced in real time with real-world consequences for business owners, their employees and customers.

The effort, capped most recently in Michigan by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order Monday closing bars, restaurants, gyms and libraries, is likely to profoundly test the American sense of liberty — and the proposition that restricting movement in the name of "social distancing" may be a necessary trade-off to protect public health.

The Trump administration's Coronavirus Task Force upped the ante a few hours later with a campaign it dubbed "15 Days to Slow the Spread." Among the recommendations: limit gatherings to no more than 10 people, avoid eating at restaurants, bars and food courts, and stay home if you or someone in your house is sick.

"We really want people to be separated at this time," said Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. "We know there is virus spread before you have symptoms."

None of this will be easy, popular or economically palatable as St. Patrick's Day celebrations get canned, weddings postponed, events canceled. But experts say it's necessary to stem an outbreak that is threatening some of the world's most advanced economies as it sweeps the globe with astonishing speed.

A day after the Federal Reserve cut interest rates near zero, the financial markets plunged. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost nearly 3,000 points, its worst day since 1987. The S&P 500 dropped 325 points, or 11.98%. And the tech-heavy NASDAQ suffered its worst day ever by losing more than 970 points, or 12.32% — all of it, and more, signaling that investors are bracing for a recession at home, abroad or both. 

Whether such actions are "overreaction" that will exact enormous, unnecessary cost on the U.S. economy, as some skeptics insist, is by now beside the point. Even the most willfully deluded understand that disease is passed more quickly among large concentrations of people, one reason the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning against holding events of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

"Someday soon hopefully it will end," President Donald Trump said at the White House, sounding a more serious tone. "It's bad. It's bad. We have an invisible enemy. I think people are pulling together on this."

We'd better. As polarized as American politics are today, the country is connected by common humanity that transcends partisanship, geography and generational divides. Selfishly ignoring pleas to stay home and avoid crowds — echoed by no less than the president of the United States — risks a wider spread of the disease that would delay recovery and deepen economic pain that already looks inevitable.

Business is reeling. Directives to stay home mean an end to most discretionary spending, sharply reduced travel, delayed purchases of goods and services beyond necessary stops at grocery stores and pharmacies. Worse, when the retrenchment will end depends on the nation's ability to "mitigate" its spread.

Major airlines already are seeking financial help from the federal government amid rumblings about bankruptcy that are only likely to get louder. Small businesses like restaurants and bars operate with razor-thin margins, meaning just a week without customers likely will culminate in missed paychecks, layoffs, even failed businesses.

And automakers, for one, operating in the United States are facing the prospect that vehicle sales are likely to collapse in March and maybe longer if the hit suffered by the Chinese market is any indication. More immediately, the revised government guidelines for social distancing and smaller crowds are likely to push automakers to shutter assembly lines. 

A first step in that direction came Sunday, when the CEOs of Detroit's three automakers and the United Auto Workers formed a Coronavirus Task Force to "implement enhanced protections for manufacturing and warehouse employees at all three companies."

The moves come in response to growing pressure from members worried that they are more likely to become infected, especially now that many white-collar employees at all three companies have been essentially ordered to work from home. A tougher policy from the White House is certain to intensify that pressure.

Nineteen years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, I was at the Frankfurt International Auto Show with the top executives of General Motors Corp. when jets slammed into the World Trade Center. For hours, amid a jumble of emotions careening from apprehension to patriotism, none of us knew what happened or what would happen next.

In succeeding weeks and months, we learned that one of our biggest collective failings was a failure of imagination — that something so cataclysmic could befall an American icon. But it did, and we persevered. We will again.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at detroitnews.com or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.