Who Will Decide When Consumers Get Back To ‘Normal’

Who Decides When Consumers Get Back To 'Normal'

When is the coronavirus pandemic going to be over?

It is the question asked by a nation of consumers who’ve run out of puzzles to put together and books to read; of entrepreneurs wondering if they will have businesses to return to; of parents who have tried their hand at teaching primary school in their kitchen and crashed and burned in the attempt; and of employees who’ve started arguing with their dogs about whether or not Carol Baskin killed her husband for want of co-workers to discuss the Tiger King with.

In short it is the question of a nation that has spent that last six weeks in crash response mode to an international pandemic unable to go out, interact with anyone they are not immediately related to or do much of anything really.

And the damage has been more than morale. Over 15 million American have applied for unemployment over the last three weeks, and when the latest numbers come out tomorrow, experts anticipate that another 5.5 million will have filed. That will push the four-week total above 22 million, or roughly one-eighth (12.5 percent) of the U.S. workforce — or all the job gains since the Great Recession of 2008, according to Bloomberg.

According to PYMNTS data, nearly half of all workers still employed are concerned they will soon be unemployed, and a quarter of U.S. SMB owners do not believe they will survive the great shutdown of 2020, while another third are starting to have serious doubts about their odds.

That almost everyone everywhere would very much like for this entire episode in human history to come to a close is certain. When that blessing will actually happen? That, it seems, remains far from certain.

As of this week, it seems that it might even be uncertain who is charge of declaring this social distancing/shelter-in-place phase of COVID-19 over. Earlier this week, a minor squabble broke out between President Donald Trump and the nation’s governors as to whether or not the U.S. president has the “absolute authority” to lift state and local stay-at-home orders in his capacity as head of the federal government.

The president said he did; the governors did not agree with that interpretation and went on to announce regional pacts between state governors on the East and West coasts to coordinate the sharing of information, resources and phased openings with their states.

And while there were 24 hours of fairly excitable reporting on the subject, and the phrase “constitutional crisis” was getting thrown about a bit liberally, ultimately it was fairly quickly resolved with the president affirming on Twitter that the governors would be free to lead the way on setting appropriate public health and reopening policies for their states.

“I will be authorizing each individual governor, of each individual state, to implement a reopening and a very powerful reopening plan of their state in a time and a manner as most appropriate,” Trump said. “Because certain states are in much different condition and in a much different place than other states.”

As for what the reopenings will look like? That is a matter under discussion, but per a press conference with California Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this week, even as things start to reopen, for a long time normal will look “anything but” in terms of work life, school life and social life, according to LAist.

“You may be having dinner with a waiter wearing gloves, maybe a face mask. Dinner where the menu is disposable, where half of the tables in that restaurant no longer appear, where your temperature is checked before you walk in to the establishment,” Newsom noted.

And all of a sudden, continued home cooking doesn’t quite sound so bad does it?

That leads to the really interesting observation about the brief tempest in a tea kettle between the president and his various executive counterparts at the state level: It was probably completely pointless, even by the generous standard one applies to squabbles between elected officials. Constitutional powers aside, neither the president nor the governors can reopen the economy by fiat. At best, they can remove the roadblocks like stay-at-home orders that are currently stopping businesses from opening or restaurants from serving consumers in their dining rooms or send stimulus checks so that those who have been unemployed for six weeks have money to spend.

But, as many of the industry leaders that PYMNTS has interviewed over the last several weeks have observed, unlocked doors alone and relief funds alone do not make for an open economy. The economy is only really open when consumers open it by leaving their couches and returning to something that looks like their old commerce patterns: eating out, going to (small at first) events, using ATMs, shopping in stores, and on the whole settling into something like business as usual.

According to PYMNTS data, the government giving some all clears for limited reopenings isn’t going to do it for the vast majority of consumers. When asked, less than 10 percent of roughly 2,000 consumers we spoke to said the government relaxing restrictions would make them comfortable enough to go back to business as usual when it comes to resuming outside-the-home leisure activities, travel or going back to work.

Nearly two months in quarantine in some places, and 34.9 percent consumers said the wide release of a vaccine is the most important factor in making them feel comfortable returning to work, while 26.9 percent said a vaccine would be key to making them resume their usual leisurely activities.

The development of a vaccine led in all categories as the element that would make consumers comfortable, with the unique exception of travel in which 28 percent of consumers indicated that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declaration that it was safe to travel was the most important factor in encouraging them to do so, narrowly edging out a vaccine, which 26.3 percent of consumers favored.

Also, popular motivators according to PYMNTS data are the development of treatments for COVID-19 and a marked decrease in the number of cases.

Politicians can fight over it all they want, it seems, and while it is greatly hoped that they find a way to work together, the data seems to make it clear that however it turns out, consumers aren’t really waiting on them for the all clear to get back to business as usual anyway. They’re waiting on a vaccine, for the virus to stop spreading rapidly, or for there to be a treatment available for it — all things that public health experts forecast are coming within the next year, but not within the next three to six months.

While the deep freeze that has gripped the economy since early March may begin some preliminary limited thawing within the next few weeks, depending on what state governors decide, the odds are good that consumers won’t necessarily be fully warmed up to getting back to the old normal for quite a while longer.

Which means business as unusual is likely to still be measured in months — rather than weeks, as of today.