Coronavirus: America's economy could be opened in phases amid federal-state tension

PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Governors of several states are conferring on opening up their economies again, following early signs of a slowing in the rate of new Covid-19 infections in certain American states.

But as pressure to open up mounts, mostly from conservative media and some in the administration, public health and economic experts are warning that more needs to be done in terms of testing in particular, as lifting stay-at-home orders could risk a second wave of infections.

Testing for Covid-19 has ramped up but is still inadequate, experts say. Just one per cent of the population has been tested.

Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told the USA Today's Editorial Board on April 8: "If we relax restrictions ... there's every reason to expect a resurgence of cases and we're back in the same problem."

A large portion of the population must be immune to the virus either through infection or vaccinations before the country can be reopened, Dr Lipsitch said.

And while scores of potential vaccines are being developed, the best case for a certified, publicly distributable vaccine is 12 to 18 months from now.

Governors of states in the north-east including New York, and the north-west including Washington state, announced regional working groups to plan when it would be safe to begin to return to business as usual.

North-eastern state governors led by Mr Andrew Cuomo of New York resolved to coordinate their efforts - a critical factor in a highly interconnected corridor.

Likewise, three west coast state governors are in discussion on coordination.

But in order to open up, three things need to happen, Washington state governor Jay Inslee said on Monday (April 13).

"Number one, we have to have an enormous expansion of our testing capability by any means necessary," he told MSNBC.

 
 

"Second, we have to have a community tracing system where you essentially have an army of people to track and trace and notify people who are involved so that when you do get a little small outbreak, you can jump right on top of it in a community.

"Third… we need the President to recognise that these decisions really are going to be made by governors.

"Each state is going to have disparate abilities to do this necessary testing and contact tracing," he said.

"We are really encouraging the federal government to mobilise the industrial base to make the swabs, make the vials, make the machines, the reagents that are necessary to really massively expand our testing capability.

"We're making progress but it's got to accelerate," he stressed.

Late last week, Attorney-General William Barr joined a growing chorus of voices advocating opening up the economy, warning against "draconian" measures.

"When this period of time, at the end of April, expires, I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have, and not just tell people to go home and hide under their bed, but allow them to use other ways - social distancing and other means - to protect themselves," Mr Barr told Fox News host Laura Ingraham.

Fox News hosts have been among those urging President Donald Trump to lift restrictions.

Meanwhile, a clash is in store over opening up as in Washington, President Trump told journalists in a testy White House briefing on Monday that he, not state governors, had the authority to lift restrictions.

"When someone is President of the United States, the authority is total," he said.

Dr Brian Marks, senior lecturer in Business and Economics Analytics in the University of New Haven, cautioned against a binary approach given the size of the US.

"We're seeing... each state is being hit at different times. So to expect a binary choice, at least for the United States, that's just not practical," Dr Marks told The Straits Times.

 
 

"I expect (opening up) will be staged across the individual states and regions as determined by the applicable state governments and governors of those states in particular," he said.

"The federal government, given our Constitution, cannot simply mandate that each state is open for business. It should be noted historically public health issues is a local matter."

In his daily briefing on Monday, New York governor Cuomo warned: "It's not going to be we flick a switch and everybody comes out of their house and… waves and hugs each other, and the economy all starts up.

"It is not going to happen that way. It can't happen that way.

"All around the world you see lessons from countries that did open, and I want to learn from those countries," he said. "We will listen to the experts and we will follow the data."

Clearly, there is a political motivation for returning to normal as soon as possible.

 
 
 

The longer the economy remains in a deep trough, the worse Mr Trump's prospects for re-election.

But it would be prudent to follow the advice of scientists, Dr Marks told The Straits Times. "Ultimately a return to normal is going to be predicated upon testing and social distancing at the current moment," he said.

In an e-mail, Dr Ian Bremmer, CEO of The Eurasia Group, wrote: "President Trump and economic advisers have stepped up a drumbeat to loosen restrictions by May, a month before the senior health advisers would recommend.

"The outcome is going to be open disagreement, some unnecessary suffering, and everyone living with… cognitive dissonance.

"Actual authority for lockdowns rests in the hands of state authorities, most of whom (and especially those with large caseloads) maintain existing policy.

"The administration will pivot to blame governors, mostly Democrats, for the poor state of the economy and the hardship of workers, while looking to avoid accountability for its pandemic response," he wrote.