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Recent polling on people’s willingness to do activities from flying to shopping shows that just because businesses are reopened doesn’t mean people are ready to venture out to them.
Memorial Day usually presents one of the biggest weekends of the year for some businesses, especially those near beaches and in tourist towns. Despite well-publicized crowds at a few party hotspots, this year businesses across the country reported that sales were nowhere near typical for the holiday—and some owners said sales were 10% or less of what they were on the same weekend the year before.
In beach towns, the downturn can be partially attributed to decreased travel and the closure of short-term rentals in some places—but even in places not dependent on tourism, the downturn has persisted throughout May. Sales at small businesses in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and California, for example, were down 63% in early May compared to the same time last year.
One obvious factor is that half of all U.S. households lost some of their income during the pandemic and no longer have the same spending power as they did last year. Recent polling also indicates that consumer attitudes remain reserved across the country—Americans are not ready to return to a life closer to normal, even if businesses are reopening.
An Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of 1,065 adults conducted from May 14 to 18 found that only 64% of them were comfortable shopping in-person for nonessential items. That number dropped to 43% for those willing to go to a restaurant and 24% who said they would visit a gym or fitness studio.
The poll seems to suggest that simply reopening nonessential businesses won’t on its own turn around the economy, as the economy can’t rebound if customers still aren’t willing to show up at stores and feel they have the resources to buy goods.
Nearly every state has begun the process of reopening, but some officials have tried to temper expectations with a realistic perspective on what consumers will be comfortable with. In an appearance on MSNBC, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said that “if they don't feel safe, they're not going to go to a restaurant, they're not going to go out, they're not going to go to retail.” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper expressed the same concern on Twitter. “Even as we ease restrictions, if you the people don’t feel safe, it won’t work,” he wrote.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, in an interview with The Guardian, put it more bluntly: “You can’t have a good economy when you don’t have customers.”
Some Americans seem to be holding out for a vaccine before they say they intend to resume many parts of normal life, particularly those involving large crowds or being in cramped quarters. One recent survey of 2,390 adults found that 40% of them said they wouldn’t fly again until a vaccine was available. In a different poll of 4,429 people, 60% said they wouldn’t attend a concert without a vaccine. Yet another poll of 762 people found that 72% wouldn’t consider attending a major sporting event without first getting vaccinated.
But while many Americans wait on widespread vaccination to return to old activities, it remains unclear how many people will accept a vaccine once it arrives. Some surveys suggest that only half of Americans intend to get vaccinated if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available—which would not be nearly enough to achieve herd immunity, the point at which a disease’s spread can be effectively contained. Health experts estimate that at least 70% of the country would need to gain immunity through infection or a vaccine to reach that point.
Still, some officials say that a vaccine is the only hope for a fully recovered economy. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said recently that “until a Covid-19 vaccine is developed, manufactured and widely distributed, our future remains subject to the whims of this virus.”
This will be a huge undertaking for drug companies, health advocates and others, starting with developing the vaccine followed by the arduous task of manufacturing it. Policy experts say it will also involve getting together enough other supplies—like syringes—to actually administer a vaccine to millions of Americans. That in itself will involve coordination between private companies and the federal government, with manufacturers expressing concerns to the New York Times that sufficient supplies are being ordered.
President Trump has called for the production of 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine by January 2021, an effort being led by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which is now working with drug makers to devise a production schedule. HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that he believes their efforts will accelerate development.
“Getting a vaccine to the American public as soon as possible is one part of President Trump's multi-faceted strategy for safely reopening our country and bringing life back to normal, which is essential to Americans' physical and mental well-being in so many ways," he said.
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.