New pressures arise as disease seems to level off but economy plummets

Some will probably push to relax the restrictions faster, while others warn that doing so prematurely could invite a resurgence of the outbreak.

A monitor displays stock market information on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

The curve is getting a little flatter. That was Thursday’s good news: In some states, graphs showing new infections of the novel coronavirus seem to be leveling out, after a long period of sharp increases that have given America the worst confirmed outbreak in the world.

Thursday’s bad news was that, in the process, the U.S. economy has been flattened.

The Labor Department said that 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment last week and another 6.9 million the week before that. That was a massive surge: the previous record high was 695,000, set back in 1982.

Overall, about 17 million Americans have suddenly become jobless, thanks to business closures and limits on movement that were imposed in March, after spotty testing and a slow federal response gave the virus a two-month head start.


So as epidemiologists turned to restrained positivity this week – “We are hoping with cautious optimism” said Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease doctor – it was the economists’ turn to sound somber.

“This isn’t a recession, it’s the Great Depression II,” wrote Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Bank, in a note to clients.

These crosscurrents – the apparent slowing of the pandemic and a virtual collapse of the economy – are certain to increase pressure on leaders to figure out how and when to ease restrictions that are costing jobs and growth. Some will probably push to relax the restrictions faster, while others warn that doing so prematurely could invite a resurgence of the outbreak.

More broadly, the news was sobering. In the United States, the virus’s death toll continued to mount rapidly, with the total coming to roughly 16,300.

Overseas, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved out of intensive care, where he had spent three days suffering from the virus, though he remains hospitalized.

President Donald Trump is expected to name a second coronavirus task force within days, this one aimed specifically at reviving the economy.

On Capitol Hill, competing proposals for more financial help failed in the Senate on Thursday, as Democrats objected to a proposed $250 billion increase in a small-business program, saying it was insufficient, and Republicans shot down the counter-offer. That left the prospects of more aid unclear.


Top officials began chiming in on when restrictions can be loosened. Attorney General William Barr said it should be next month. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said it might be next month.

But they don’t get to decide. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat – one of those who do – said he wasn’t yet sure how to do it without letting the virus roar back. His comments came on a day when New York reported another record-high death toll.

“Everybody is assuming, well, once we get through this, we’re done,” Cuomo said. “I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that. This virus has been ahead of us from Day One. We’ve underestimated the enemy, and that is always dangerous, my friends. We should not do that again.”

Trump – who downplayed the virus’ threat during crucial weeks of squandered preparation – now faces a pair of crises, one medical and one economic, that will largely define his first term. That is becoming increasingly clear at a time when Democrats are coalescing around the standard-bearer who is likely to challenge Trump in the fall, former vice president Joe Biden.

Trump told reporters Thursday that the administration was likely to release a proposal over the weekend to help the airline industry. “The airline business has been hit very hard, as everybody knows, and we are going to be in a position to do a lot to help them,” he said.


The president also said he is talking to foreign leaders in an effort to boost the energy industry. More generally, he added, “We are going to open up very, very soon, I hope.”

Still, Trump’s handling of the crises brought a rebuke Thursday from the Wall Street Journal editorial board, often a Trump ally, which wrote that the president’s daily press briefings have become “less about defeating the virus and more about the many feuds of Donald Trump.” Trump responded with a tweet, telling the Journal that “the ratings for the White House Press Briefings are ‘through the roof.’ “

Around the world, countries continued to struggle while hoping they were seeing positive glimmers.

In Italy – the country with the highest confirmed death toll – officials announced 4,204 new cases of the virus. That is a decline from the peak of the country’s outbreak, but it is 1,000 more than the daily total from earlier this week. The outbreak, in other words, may be in a decline in Italy, but it appears to be a slow one.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that he might consider relaxing some elements of the country’s stringent national lockdown “by the end of this month,” if scientists agree.

At the current rate, America seems likely to surpass Italy for the world’s largest confirmed death toll in the coming days. China, the nation where the outbreak began, has announced just 3,300 deaths – but there is evidence that the real number is many times higher.

In the United States, New York accounts for about 40 percent of all the deaths so far. That state’s outbreak, which has spread outward from New York City, is now so deadly that the state needs more funeral directors to handle the load.


“If you ever told me that as governor I would have to take these actions, I couldn’t even contemplate where we are now,” Cuomo said Thursday during his daily news briefing. “And to put all this in perspective, I lived through 9/11; 9/11 was supposed to be the darkest day in New York for a generation.”

As officials in New York said the outbreak seemed to be slowing, public health experts raised another question: Will there be another New York?

On Thursday, one of the biggest problems seemed to be in Michigan, which has the third-highest total of cases. The state reported 117 new deaths, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said she thought an influential model of the disease’s spread, which predicted this week that Michigan’s outbreak had peaked, was too optimistic.

She extended the state’s stay-at-home order until April 19. “You can see that we are in control of our fate here,” Whitmer said.

She also announced a task force aimed at understanding why black and Hispanic Americans have made up a disproportionately large share of the virus’s death toll. In Michigan, African Americans make up 14 percent of the population but more than 40 percent of those who have died.

“This virus is holding a mirror up to our society and reminding us of the deep inequities in this country,” Whitmer said. “From basic lack of access to health care, transportation and protections in the workplace, these inequities hit people of color and vulnerable communities the hardest.”

If the virus’ spread is indeed starting to slow, its economic cost is only growing. On Thursday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the U.S. economy was headed downhill fast.


“We are moving with alarming speed from 50-year lows in unemployment to what will likely be very high, although temporary, levels,” Powell said in a Brookings Institution webcast. The Fed has taken aggressive measures to prop up struggling companies in recent days, an intervention more sweeping than during the financial crisis a decade ago.

Even after Congress passed a sweeping $2 trillion relief package, many individuals and business owners say they’ve found it hard to get help.

Democrats on Thursday resisted a GOP proposal to add $250 million to the Paycheck Protection Program, a small-business initiative, saying more is needed; Republicans said they are playing politics, leaving a standoff for now.

And state unemployment offices – charged with helping a flood of newly jobless people – have been unable to keep up. Florida started handing out paper unemployment applications this week because the state’s jobless claims website kept failing. In New York, laid-off workers are having to call hundreds of times to complete their applications.

Around the country, new bread lines have sprung up, as people wait – often in long traffic jams – to get food from local food banks. The slow release of funds in the United States is in marked contrast to some other countries, such as Denmark, where the government is paying workers 75 percent of their salaries during the pandemic, and Canada, which has vowed to get money to workers in 10 days or less.

That pain has led some conservatives to push for a relatively quick relaxation of virus-related lockdowns, to get the economy moving again.


“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,” Barr said late Wednesday in an interview on Fox News Channel.

On Thursday, Mnuchin also said it was possible that some restrictions could be relaxed next month.

But while such comments can create pressure for action, the decisions that would restart the economy depend far more heavily on governors and mayors. And public health officials say they should hold off until the virus is at very low levels.

Many experts say the stay-home orders and social distancing will probably be lifted in phases. Even then, consumers would need to feel safe going out to stores, movie theaters, ballparks and restaurants. If they won’t leave home, the economy will stay flat.

Tom Barkin, president of the Richmond Fed, said he saw parallels to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when far-reaching security measures allowed Americans to feel safe going out again. In this case, he said, it might take a coronavirus vaccine or widespread immunity testing, but both of those things probably are still far off.

“We’re going to have to think hard about what are the things that will have to make us feel it’s safe to shop again or eat out again,” Barkin said.



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