New York State has flattened the curve of new coronavirus infections. Entering the final week of April, the daily totals of new hospitalizations and deaths have significantly declined. Shutdowns of “non-essential” economic activity and social distancing are having the desired effect by reducing the spread of the virus, though those same shutdowns are wreaking havoc on both private and public sector finances.
The unprecedented shutdown is also creating enormous challenges for families facing unemployment and loss of income, as well as reports of increased incidents of domestic violence and substance abuse. Returning to “normal” is not likely for the foreseeable future, but most agree safely returning to work soon and getting the kids back to school by September are critical.
Public confidence that their health is protected is key to reopening the economy. Public health experts tell us the virus is likely to reemerge later this year, so any reopening strategy must be aligned with close attention to public health data on new infections.
Critical to building public confidence is a comprehensive system of contact tracing to allow public health officials to thwart new virus outbreaks. Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor Mike Bloomberg have initiated a broad effort to institute contact tracing and similar efforts are being started across the nation. Additional testing and better data on new infections will build more confidence to restart the economy.
Mr. Cuomo has extended the shutdown of New York’s economy to May 15 and the state is now projecting that activity in the North Country, Central New York and Mohawk regions could resume on a limited basis by that time. However, a more extensive economic reopening is needed, particularly throughout the rest of upstate New York.
First, the state should reconsider its characterization of businesses as “essential” or “non-essential.” While this distinction was important in the early stages of the shutdown, we should allow all businesses that can operate using appropriate social distancing and sanitary procedures to open. All jobs providing gainful employment are essential, particularly to the individuals and families relying on that income.
Second, the state should allow all elective surgeries and procedures to begin. Hospital and out-patient surgery centers are well versed in safety protocols and many people are in serious need of these “elective” surgeries. Many upstate hospitals are operating at less than 50% capacity and the revenue losses are causing some to furlough healthcare workers. Just as important, the revenue drain is threatening the financial viability of hospitals and medical practices.
Third, the construction season is now upon us. All construction projects, particularly outdoor work, should be permitted. There is no logical reason to permit road and bridge work or construction of medical facilities to proceed, while prohibiting all other such work as “non-essential.” Renewed construction activities will spur building materials suppliers, trucking and a host of other related employment.
Fourth, the state should establish an on-line portal for small businesses to self-certify their review of safety protocols for workers and customers. Early indications are that the state may require all businesses to seek permission to reopen. Such an approach would be unduly bureaucratic, will not truly protect public health and will stall our economic recovery.
A more complex set of issues arise with restaurants, retail, and personal services. Here again, with appropriate sanitary and social distancing protocols in place many of these businesses could begin to operate safely. New Yorkers have responded well to the requirements of social distancing and the use of face coverings. This message will need to be continually reinforced but there is ample reason to expect that the public will honor such requirements going forward.
The death toll from the virus in New York State has been a catastrophe. The ramifications of a continued economic shutdown will also be catastrophic, as millions face long-term unemployment and businesses go bankrupt. The state projects revenue losses of over $60 billion between now and 2023. Local government sales tax collections will likely be off by 20-30%. Renewed private sector economic activity can greatly mitigate the financial impact.
Until therapeutic drugs and vaccines are developed none of us will feel totally safe. As we creatively work to reopen the economy the pandemic’s financial dislocation—and its attendant human impacts—will become an important but, hopefully, receding part of our history.
John J. Faso represented New York’s 19th Congressional District from 2017-2019 and is a former Republican leader of the state Assembly.
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