People, not Trump or Mills, will decide on opening as Covid-19 lessens

Maine faces major challenge in restarting business

Gordon L. Weil

Who will decide when to begin to open the economy as Covid-19 fades?

President Trump? After a false start, that’s clearly out. State governors? Legally, but not likely.

Government has mandated limits on individuals and businesses. People are often told to stay at home except for venturing out for essential purposes. All but essential businesses, often broadly defined, must be closed to the public.

From the outset of the arrival of the virus, the country reacted as if the crisis would be brief. Aid to businesses and workers would tide them over while the coronavirus was brought under control. Almost unprecedented protective measures were imposed, but in the belief they could soon be lifted.

In effect, government action was grounded in remarkable faith in science to come up with an effective treatment in a matter of months or rapidly to develop a vaccine.

Until science triumphs, government patches and protects. The patch is the massive action by the Federal Reserve and Congress, pouring funds into the economy to maintain some personal and business income. The protection is “stay-at-home” and lock-downs.

Discovery of cures is usually slow and uncertain, not a recipe for quick recovery. But the economy cannot be put on hold for an endless period. Governors must come up with policies for “opening” their states. That is proving to be difficult.

Gov. Janet Mills faces an almost impossible challenge. Oxford Economics, a research firm, finds that Maine will be the hardest hit state by the Covid crisis. Its older population and dependence on tourism

plus a retail economy with many small business and self-employed people combine to make recovery unusually difficult.

Seniors must continue to be protected, but Maine needs an influx of people to its lodgings and restaurants and to occupy their second homes. The obvious problem is that they may bring the virus with them, even if they are unaware of it.

Federal guidelines focus on the stabilization and decline of virus cases. Much depends on testing, but, right now, it is overrated. There are insufficient testing supplies, and their effectiveness is questionable. So the date remains elusive when all are tested and those cleared can go to work.

Maine’s progress has been good, though it is not yet evident that the state has reached its peak in new cases. It may benefit from its relative isolation with the Canadian border effectively closed and self-quarantine regulations and shuttered accommodations discouraging the flow from elsewhere.

While there is general recognition that science, not government, calls the shots, the economy cannot wait for months or even a year with current cutbacks. Many people will resist being kept at home. Governors will have to allow for gradual opening.

In Georgia, the governor began opening his state last week. But many people and businesses did not change their protective stance. One mayor there received requests for guidance. She said she responded: “Don’t look to government to tell you what to do. If you want to go and get your hair done, that’s on you.”

That’s the kind of advice Mills and other governors may have to give as the economy reopens. Not the president, not the governor, but the individual will decide.

It’s possible that a vaccine will become available this year, which could reduce the risks of reopening. But behavior may have been changed by the initial Covid-19 experience, especially for the most vulnerable. Even with a vaccine, reopening would be cautious and and decided by each individual.

The state role may be to allow people to take whatever risks they want, provided they don’t increase the risk for others. And it can issue mandates that would enhance the freedom of the most threatened.

Stay-at-home and business closings will eventually be relaxed, but wearing masks, which prevent taking in the virus, or face coverings, which prevent spreading it to others, may be mandatory for the long-term. Similarly, social distancing could be maintained, though it would undercut dining out or attending large events.

The result of a policy combining state safeguards and individual decisions could be a self-segregated society. Many people, either because of scientific gains or indifference to risk, may decide to live as freely as possible. Others, including the most vulnerable – seniors and those with illnesses, might stay home.

Whether this course of action would work is unclear. If Covid-19 brings even more serious health problems like blood clots or opening society without an effective vaccine causes the resurgence of the virus, even greater changes in our lives and the economy may be inevitable. Right now, uncertainty reigns.

The most obvious challenge for federal and state governments and individuals struggling with Covid-19 is its menacing mystery.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.