The photos were something of a shock: people crowding outside bars and restaurants and in parks, ignoring social distancing rules, many not wearing masks.
This wasn’t Georgia or Lake of the Ozarks, places where folks aggressively led the charge to reopen the economy.
This was New York, where the coronavirus has exacted its most deadly toll.
And the message was as clear as the uncovered faces in the photos: The great tug-of-war between science and economics was over. The country — not just red states where skepticism about the danger of coronavirus runs high — is going back to work and back to socializing, even at the risk of fueling a pandemic that is still not under control.
Yes, when money talks, epidemiology takes a walk. Even in hard-hit Massachusetts, it’s time to move forward. On Friday, Governor Charlie Baker said we’ve made enough progress that restaurants can resume offering indoor dining as long as they follow health-safety guidelines.
But in reality we’re in the first phase of a high-stakes clinical trial with nearly 330 million test subjects. Many — including Black and Hispanic Americans, people over 65, and those with preexisting health conditions — are especially vulnerable during this experiment.
So far the results are inconclusive. We need to proceed with caution.
The end of stay-at-home orders and other restrictions has given the economy a modest boost. As businesses reopen, furloughed and laid-off employees are returning to work, while others are finding new jobs. Consumer spending has bounced partially back from the lows reached in April.
Of course, we are climbing out of a giant hole: The state lost 646,700 jobs in April. The state’s unemployment rate was little changed at 16.3 percent last month, above the national rate of 13.3 percent.
The improvement here is modest compared with some states that opened up much earlier than Massachusetts, including Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia. These states have something else in common: COVID-19 infections are on the rise in each of them. But others, including Indiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi, have resumed more normal routines without seeing a spike.
Massachusetts, at least the eastern half, is a lot different than those more rural states. More of us live in densely packed housing and neighborhoods, ride subways and commuter rail, and come into contact with more tourists and business travelers. That makes everything harder.
“The economic toll of the virus is closely tied to how successfully we can get the public health pandemic under control,” Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said in the text of a speech to a virtual meeting Friday of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.
“If there are significant flare-ups in states that have aggressively reopened, the reduction in social distancing that contributes to stronger economic performance in such states now may translate to more depressed economic activity and increased public health issues in those states in the future,” he said.
Rosengren’s takeaway: “Given the death toll of the virus even with the economic lockdown, I see a substantial risk in reopening too fast and relaxing social distancing too much.” A return to work is good news only if done “safely and on a sustained basis,” he said.
As if on cue, Apple said a few hours later that it will close its stores in Arizona, as well as in Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, after watching the number of infections there rise.
On Thursday, California, which was the first state to impose a stay-at-home order, reported more than 4,000 new COVID-19 cases, a daily record. Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the use of masks in most indoor and some outdoor settings. Meanwhile, China has put millions of people in lockdown in Beijing after a resurgence there.
The economy won’t gain even a semblance of normalcy until enough people believe it’s safe to go back out into the world. Everyone should make their own decisions. But they need to be informed decisions.
The facts we need to make those decision won’t be forthcoming from restaurants, retailers, airlines, vacation resorts, and everyone else desperate to get back to business.
No, for that we need the scientists.