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Expert: It’s not too soon to make plans to restart the economy, but life won’t be the same when we do

German authorities have declared the coronavirus "under control" and allowed shops like this one in Berlin to reopen. Will this happen in America soon?
German authorities have declared the coronavirus "under control" and allowed shops like this one in Berlin to reopen. Will this happen in America soon?DAVID GANNON/AFP via Getty Images

An expert says it’s not too soon to begin planning to restart the economy, using what we already know about the coronavirus and other respiratory diseases, but life won’t be the same in the new era.

“This is not a choice between dealing with the epidemic or dealing with the economy. We have to do both, and we have to do them successfully,” said Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

While there are major unanswered questions, such as whether people who test positive for antibodies to the virus can resist it, “We do know a lot that could help us in beginning to plan for reopening, in progressive and limited ways, different aspects of the economy," Fineberg said Tuesday in a forum organized by the Harvard school and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Fineberg, who is also a board member of the journal, said it was “pretty clear” that the virus spreads the same way other respiratory viruses spread, through droplets of various sizes, including aerosols.

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Planning could address known risks, he suggested. People being in close proximity and in large groups, for example, raise the risk of someone getting infected.

“How long are you together?" he asked. “What are you doing during the interaction? Are you just sitting quietly and eating? Or are you cheering at a sporting event, or shouting or singing in a choir?”

The physical environment can also be a factor, he said, including the layout of a room, the separation of people it allows, and the use of air purifying equipment.

“Right now, it is not too soon for every sector in the economy, whether you’re a university, a school, a workplace, a factory, any gathering spot, to begin to think through, given what we know and taking advantage of what we will learn, what would be our best practices today for beginning to approach a more nearly normal way of interacting,” he said.

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“That’s a part of coping with both the economy and the epidemic that, I believe, could use a great deal more concerted attention from leadership across the entire spectrum of enterprise in our country,” he said.

When the economy does get rolling again, he said, things are going to be different, with handshakes a waning custom, and people wearing face masks and perhaps checking their temperatures more regularly.

“In my opinion,” he said, “life in the time of coronavirus is not ever going to be quite the same as life prior to the coronavirus.”

Another panelist, Dr. Caroline Buckee, professor of epidemiology at the Chan School and associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, emphasized that more testing will be crucial to reopening.

“Right now we don’t have good estimates for where we are on the epidemic curve in different places," she said. “Discussions of relaxation of physical distancing … need to be based in a capacity to test people so we know where we are.

“I wouldn’t be considering opening up society until I had testing in place. Period,” she said.

She said the first need is diagnostic tests so infected people can be identified and their contacts can be traces.

“Then we need broader serological or antibody testing in the community so we can understand the extent of the epidemic so far,” she said.

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Governors have said in recent days that a shortage of tests is among the most significant hurdles in the way of lifting restrictions in their states and urged the federal government to help.

The Senate passed $484 billion in new pandemic relief funds Tuesday to bolster a tapped-out small business aid program, pay for coronavirus testing, and help hospitals deluged by sick patients. The bill includes $25 billion for testing.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Tuesday there is no timeline for a return to some semblance of economic normalcy in Boston, because key prerequisites to reopening the city, including universal testing for the coronavirus, could be months away.

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.



Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com