The order to reopen–who gives it?

Like all of us, President Trump is eager to reopen the economy. Does he have the authority to do so or do state governors? Fortunately, neither can force us to start eating out again, or return to our offices. We remain a country where those decisions rest with each of us individually (or jointly with your boss with regard to returning to your office, shop or factory). That means that those parts of the economy that have shut down will get going again when the affected businesses have taken measures to protect their customers and employees sufficient to regain their customers’ trust that they are safe places to visit. But as I argued last month, that should always have been the basis of social interactions.  “Beating-covid-19: Compulsion-or-Persuasion-and-guidance”

The broad-based, blunt instrument of sheltering at home unless your activities are vital (says who?) is imposing staggering damage to the economy.  The best way to minimize that damage is to restore public trust as quickly as possible that those with it are being isolated and treated.  A blanket shut down of non-essential activities is not the best approach. Each of us in our personal situation can better determine where we feel safe to go than can a government agency.  However, some of us will not give sufficient weight to the dangers of exposing our friends and the general public to the disease if we might have it.  Public policy should educate the public to the dangers of covid-19 and how best to protect ourselves and should minimize the financial incentive to continue working when sick. State coercion (mandatory quarantines) should only be applied to those testing positive for the virus.  This approach will allow all firms and stores to operate whose employees and customers judge them to be safe and will give businesses maximum incentive to make themselves safe.

Covid-19 will be around for at least another year or two until an effective vaccine is available and then distributed to more than 60 percent of the world population. The most effective way to contain its spread in the interim is to undertake widespread, quick, and accurate testing and to quarantine those who test positive with efficient contact tracing.  Adding the newly available tests for antibodies indicating immunity to the virus will identify those who are no longer susceptible to acquiring or spreading the disease. They should be safe in public.  Other corona viruses have created immunity in those who have had them and SARS-CoV-2 is expected to do the same, though this has not yet been established.

The U.S. has belatedly increased its testing for the virus. Initially it impeded the development and supply of test kits. As of April 16, the U.S. has tested 10,266 people per million while Germany has tested twice that. The U.S. by that date had 105 deaths per million while Germany had less than half that.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should get out of the way and allow profit seeking entrepreneurs to flood the market with test kits.  The government should focus its (our) money on a large increase in testing for the virus and quarantining those testing positive and those they contacted and should offer significant financial prizes for an effective vaccine and for the development (or discovery) of effective treatments. Unlike patents as an incentive, this will encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among those attempting to develop treatments.

On April 16 President Trump outlined guidance for the phased reopening of closed businesses and activities that is consistent with the approach outline above.  The government’s traditional public health role is important. But much more discretion should be given to individual case by case judgements about risks and entrepreneurial initiatives about remedies rather than broad based government edicts.

We will not return and cannot be required to return to the public square until we believe it is safe to do so. Individual shops and firms have a financial incentive to find convincing approaches to being safe and will get there quicker than even the best-intentioned government official issuing instructions and mandates. The government has an important role to play in fighting this virus and facilitating our return to normal life, but it should remove impediments it often creates to the private sector’s management of the related risks and the huge and unnecessary damage it imposes on the economy.