The U.S. economy has been for all intents and purposes shut down due to the global coronavirus pandemic for the last four to six weeks, the exact start date depending on where in the United States you live.
While essential service providers like grocery stores and pharmacies remain open, the rest of retail has more or less shut down or gone digital. The travel vertical is essentially frozen, schools are closed, and non-essential employees are working from home at best (or furloughed or laid off at worst).
The latest unemployment figures came in at roughly 5 million new claims — a figure that would have been record-breaking, but the week that preceded it had claims north of 6 million. Roughly 22 million Americans have lost jobs from the COVID-19 outbreak to date, and economists estimate U.S. unemployment could reach anywhere from 16 to 25 percent by summer.
In response, the government has already passed $2.2 trillion in stimulus funds for consumers and businesses nationwide. And while some businesses have reported receiving funds, far more complain of technical glitches. The $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) exhausted its allotted funds as of Thursday (April 16), a mere 13 days after its launch.
To say everyone is ready for this to be over is a dramatic understatement. But when will it actually be over?
That’s a much more complicated and controversial question than you might think.
The White House offered the nation a first look in recent days at the official walk-back — President Donald Trump’s Opening Up America Again plan. It’s a three-phase guide for state governors to use as a rubric for easing states out of strict social distancing measures and more toward something like normal.
So, what are the phases, and are Americans ready for America to be open for business again?
The Three-Phase Plan
To start the plan, states must first clear three hurdles. The first is a downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19 syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period.
The second is a downward trajectory of documented cases or positive tests as a percent of total tests, within a 14-day period.
The third hurdle to clear is for hospitals to be treating patients without crisis care and be able to offer robust testing for healthcare workers.
Phase One would see some public places like restaurants, movie theaters and gyms reopen, although under guidelines to keep distance between patrons. Elective surgeries can also begin again in Phase One.
Schools, day care centers and camps, however, should remain closed; non-essential travel should continue to be avoided, and workers should continue to telecommute where possible. Vulnerable individuals (the elderly or those with underlying conditions that put them at increased risk for the virus) are encouraged to continue social distancing.
In Phase Two, vulnerable individuals are still encouraged to social distance, but more restrictions come off. Limits on gathering sizes are increased from 10 people to 50, non-essential travel can resume, and schools, day care centers and camps can reopen. Bars can likewise open with reduced standing-room occupancy.
It is not until Phase Three, however, that workers are encouraged to return to their workplaces. That is also the phase in which visits to senior care facilities and hospitals can resume, and restrictions on venues like sporting events are loosened (as are the rules for bar operations).
In announcing the new guidelines, Trump noted that not all states or localities would be able to enter or progress through the phases at the same speed.
"And some states will be able to open up sooner than others," he said, according to the White House. "Some states are not in the kind of trouble that others are in. Now that we have passed the peak in new cases, we’re starting our life again, we’re starting rejuvenation of our economy again, in a safe and structured and very responsible fashion."
But are consumers ready for that rejuvenation? That is where the data get complicated.
A Range of Reactions a Month Into Lockdown
As PYMNTs has observed, there are various things federal and state officials can do to encourage consumers and make them feel safe enough shop. But at the end of the day, whether or not the economy gets kick-started or not will be consumers’ decision to make. After all, consumer spending accounts for some two-thirds of the U.S economy.
But how ready consumers are going to be to come back to business as usual in a few weeks or even months is very much an open question. What does seem clear from PYMNTS most recent data on the subject is that a government OK, all on its own, isn’t going to do it.
Only 9.2 percent of consumers that we surveyed said the government relaxing restrictions would make them more likely to eat in a restaurant. Similarly, just 6.4 percent said that would make them more likely to travel for pleasure, and only 7.2 percent reported it would make them more likely to take on leisure activities outside of the home.
That compares to the 26 percent, 26.3 percent and 26.9 percent of consumers who reported that a COVID-19 vaccine would make them more likely to resume their normal lives across those categories. Another 18.3 percent, 28 percent and 18.8 percent said they’d return to those activities if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that travel was now safe.
Such results aren’t surprising in light of the fact that consumers' main concerns as of our latest survey were health-centric even as respondents’ economic concerns are growing.
When asked about their main COVID-19 concern, the biggest worry cited was infecting other people, with over a third listing that as their No. 1 fear. That was followed by 27.9 percent who cited dying from the disease as their main concern.
The highest employment- or economic-related concern involved fear of being too sick to work for an extended period. However, only 11.3 percent of respondents cited that concern.
Just 4.1 percent of those polled called losing their job their biggest fear, and less than 1 percent said they worried the most about a spouse losing a position.
‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19’
Nonetheless, protests over social distancing and economic restrictions broke out in recent days in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Virginia, Michigan, Texas, Maryland and Washington. Picketers demanded that the government end social restrictions and get the economy up and running again. So-called "Operation Gridlock" protesters called on officials to roll back limits — some picketing from the safety of cars, others defiantly standing in crowds holding signs with slogans like: “Give Me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19.”
Some governors have begun lifting restrictions or have plans to embark on Phase One later this week. Others plan to do so in early May.
Florida’s beaches reopened over the weekend, and early reports indicated that crowds started to gather almost immediately. Will the same sort of enthusiasm apply in places that aren’t beach locations?
That will likely depend on how the early openings go — from both an economic and public-health standpoint. But for the time being, apart from a very vocal few protesters, most Americans seem less than rarin’ to go.
It remains to be seen if more opportunities to get back to the outside world influence that decision — or not.