By editorial board • 

Economic reboot figures to be gradual, uneven and nuanced

Much was made about the president’s claim of total authority over lifting COVID-19 restrictions and resuming business as usual.

His assertion of absolute power over American economic activity was challenged by legal experts and the governors of hard hit states on the opposite coasts. It also generated another of the media storms that have characterized his turbulent presidency — storms in which he clearly revels.

But it seems like much ado about nothing. In point of fact, no president, governor or coalition of governors possesses the ability to order the American economic engine to come roaring back — or even to do a whole lot to kickstart the process.

The federal government has no restrictions to lift because it never imposed any. Following the deeply held states’ rights convictions of his party, the president deferred to the states on that point. His administration eventually adopted some guidelines, but they remain advisory.

The return to some semblance of economic normalcy will take careful planning and coordination on a local and regional basis.

It’s imperative the decision to begin relaxing restrictions be made on the basis of science and medicine, not politics and economics. That is much easier to carry out at the state and regional levels than the politically and economically charged hothouse of Washington, D.C.

The key long-term requirement, still apparently more than a year away, is a reliable and widely available vaccine. The key short-terms requirements are: 1) decline in infection, hospitalization and death rates to manageable levels; 2) broad availability of testing, coupled with rapid, effective followup to prevent spread.

We can expect economic resumption to proceed in a series of fits and starts — fits and starts governed largely by the interaction of providers with consumers and employers with employees, not politicians with constituents.

You can lead a consumer to goods and services, but you can’t make him buy. Initially, he or she is more likely to brave going in for a haircut, blood test or dental exam than bellying up to a crowded bar, jumping on a commercial airline or streaming into a packed stadium.

Traffic in discretionary big-ticket items like houses, cars and vacations probably will be particularly slow to come back. Consumers who’ve been out of work for weeks will inevitably exercise caution, particularly when the price looms large.

On the employment side, consumer demand is expected to continue lagging for some time, which likely will drive some employers out of business and deter others from reloading right away. 

New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo was right when he said: “This is not a light switch that we can just flick one day and everything goes back to normal.” Indeed.

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