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OPINION | Get ready for the ‘careful’ economy

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READY or not — mostly not —  the reopening is at hand. The economic carnage of a continued lockdown is simply too great to sustain.

But the virus is still with us, so the carefully reopened economy will be less efficient than the pre-pandemic economy.

We all hoped for a smart reopening, with thoughtful workplace and social protocols and a robust public-health response to stamp out the embers of the novel coronavirus. We hoped technology would save us — a vaccine, a cure, a cheap daily test. None of this is likely in the next few months. We have more tests, but we don’t have the beginnings of a public-health infrastructure to use our testing capacity in a productive way. Cities and states are only starting to hire contact tracers. Americans won’t put up with Chinese-style surveillance in which an inscrutable app turns red and sends people to quarantine for two weeks.

We seem fated instead to a dumb reopening, relaxing the increasingly untenable government-imposed blanket shutdowns and hoping for the best. Many doctors and epidemiologists are sounding the alarm, warning of a massive second wave of infections. But they were wrong last time. The dire forecasts may well be wrong again. Those models left out two crucial facts: People are smart and places are different.

Smart people knew there was a dangerous virus about and started social distancing long before the government told them to. The spread of a virus always depends on myriad little decisions people make every day, and most Americans made smart decisions.

Some places are more conducive to virus-spreading than others. The virus spreads best in indoor gatherings where people can breathe on each other for an extended time — restaurants, choirs, birthday parties, dances, nursing homes, cruise ships, aircraft carriers. Most of this virus is spread by a few “superspreading” events, not casual contact. People quickly avoided these places and occasions on their own. They will continue to do so. Nursing homes won’t make the same mistakes twice.

New York is singularly designed to spread the virus. Austin, Texas, doesn’t have a subway. There isn’t another New York to light up.

If infections increase, people will quickly become more careful again. If infections continue to decrease, people will become less careful, and the pandemic will drag out. The number of new cases will decline slowly as better knowledge and testing reduce the costs of being careful.

Apart from a robust test-and-trace program, the most important thing government can give us is accurate and timely information on how widespread the virus is in each community — how dangerous it really is to go out — something we don’t have now. If people don’t know the danger, there will be second and third waves, and crashes. A little random testing would go a long way. Better research on how the disease spreads — and how it doesn’t — would help a lot.

The virus will be with us for a long time, and it will hobble the economy more than most people realize. Restaurants that serve every other table, and airlines with every other seat empty, must charge twice as much or halve wages. Workplaces with 6 feet between employees need to rent more space. Every business that has to disinfect once an hour must pass that cost along.

Efficiency is the secret of the American economy. The careful economy scales back that efficiency. There can be lots of jobs, but different jobs, and jobs that pay less. If the virus provokes a greater trade war, a “reshoring” of production, that makes everything less efficient and more expensive as well. Gross domestic product and average wages must decline even if everyone is working.

Smart people and businesses will figure out which costly steps matter and which ones don’t, and come slowly to a more efficient careful economy. But that will take time too.

Government will be tempted to make everything worse. If we have lots of people unemployed from jobs that aren’t coming back, and we have big needs for lower-paid work in a less efficient economy, paying people to stay home at yesterday’s wages will be counterproductive. Paying yesterday’s businesses to hang on will likewise be counterproductive.

Adapting business practices to the careful economy will take lots of inventive thought. Already there are calls for long lists of new regulations. At best such rules would enshrine ideas that seemed good at the time but turn out to be costly, unproductive or unsuited later. We got here in part because of a catastrophic failure of our regulatory state — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing foul-ups, Food and Drug Administration mask regulations, anti-price-gouging regulations, and more. Tying up an economy that needs to adapt via more regulations only makes matters worse.

The wide-open U.S. internet has been the healthiest part of the pandemic response so far. Any of us can read models and studies in real time, and their tweeted criticisms. If experts tell us masks don’t help, and then that they do, we can quickly debate the evidence. All of us, even the experts, are learning in real time. You can’t do that in China.

The fast-moving community of ideas is a joy to watch. But the desire to enforce an information monopoly of so-called experts and public officials remains. Twitter announced that it plans to censor tweets that “conflict with guidance from public health experts.” YouTube has banned any coronavirus-related content that contradicts World Health Organization advice. Fake news and rumors have been with us forever, and experts are often wrong. The freedom to debate is essential.

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