Letter: Hold your horses on reopening the economy

The Detroit News

Those who want to race toward a fast reopening of the economy have been talking a lot lately. They have also engaged in cheap political theatrics, endangering themselves and others at the protest in Lansing on April 15.

Fortunately, there are adults in the room. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has joined the governors of six other states in our region, announcing a plan to coordinate as we move to reopen the economy. The governors are right on the money, with an approach based on facts, rather than political posturing.

This kind of regional cooperation is exactly what we need. The governors understand that the economies of these states are closely interconnected, and that viruses do not respect state lines.

They understand that we cannot get the economy back without adequate testing and tracing. They understand that we cannot get the economy back without sensible social distancing in the workplace. This will probably involve face masks, barriers and limits on the number and placement of people.

They understand that we must take this one step at a time. They understand that we must make incremental changes, rather than a headlong rush toward the mirage of a normal economy. They understand that we must evaluate our progress at every step, to avoid a sudden and overwhelming resurgence of infections.

Very little traffic on State Street in Ann Arbor, Mich. on April 15, 2020.  Most of Ann Arbor has much less pedestrian traffic due the coronavirus threat.

There is hope that, within a few weeks, the number of deaths and new infections will be much lower. Then, even more than now, it will be tempting to ramp up the economy fast.

But when that time comes, most Michigan residents will have no immunity to the COVID-19 virus. If we reopen too fast, we could quickly return to the horrifying situation of the last few weeks. That would impose unnecessary devastation, in terms of lives lost, lives ruined, and yes, in terms of the economy.

We could say that a fast reopening would be bad public policy, but that is not strong enough. A fast reopening would be large-scale negligent homicide.

Right now, the economy’s traffic light is red. We all want it to get to green as fast as possible. But the harsh reality is that it cannot, and must not, get all the way to green until we have a vaccine, which will probably be a year from now. In the meantime, we need to be patient as the light flashes yellow.

Charles L. Ballard, professor of economics

Michigan State University