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In our opinion: Consumers hold the key to the economy during the pandemic

SHARE In our opinion: Consumers hold the key to the economy during the pandemic

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The economy won’t truly reopen until people feel confident. Unfortunately, that confidence took a couple of hits Monday when White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien tested positive for COVID-19, and when Major League Baseball had to cancel some games in its fledgling season because at least 14 members of the Miami Marlins tested positive.

The Deseret News is in the midst of a 55-day challenge to Utahns — a campaign likened to this generation’s moonshot — to strictly obey recommendations for mask wearing, hand-washing and social distancing in order to keep the virus from spreading. If all people would do these things, cases would begin to decline, and confidence would increase.

That campaign is more important now than ever. Utahns can’t afford to let down their guard.

Much of the clatter about government-imposed shutdowns is misguided. No government leader truly controls a switch that could turn the economy back to full blast. At best, they hold a dimmer switch. Consumers hold the true key to the economy, and they aren’t ignorant. As long as case counts remain high, they will act cautiously. 

That means they will shop less, except perhaps online. They won’t eat out as much as they once did, and they will keep travel to a minimum. All of these behaviors impact the economy negatively and make it much harder for businesses to thrive.

While it’s too early to tell, Sunday’s new case count in Utah of 350, followed by Monday’s count of 436, are movements in the right direction. However, they followed 661 cases on Saturday and 863 cases Friday. The seven-day rolling average stood at 544 on Monday, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Gov. Gary Herbert has set a goal for the state of a seven-day average of 500 or less by Aug. 1. He may announce new pandemic-fighting measures if that goal is missed. The true economic impact, however, will be felt because people will remain unconvinced that it’s safe to resume normal activity.

Already, Salt Lake County and a few other places in the state have mandated the use of face masks. These have, in many cases, been backed up and enforced by private retailers and restaurant owners who refuse admittance to people without masks.

In a meeting last week with the Deseret News/KSL editorial boards, Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, said the state ought to begin measuring consumer confidence specific to Utah and taking actions that help businesses operate safely.

Nationally, surveys have shown consumer confidence taking a big hit because of the virus. As the University of Michigan’s survey noted, the “coronavirus recession” is unlike any previous recession, because it “cannot be reversed solely by economic policies.” Only a vaccine or effective treatment would do that.

But a huge reduction in daily cases, brought on by smart public behavior, could do much to restore confidence enough to resume many daily activities. 

Monday’s news was difficult for a number of reasons. O’Brien’s positive test, and the fact he is experiencing symptoms, raise questions about the health of others in the nation’s leadership, including President Donald Trump, notwithstanding assurances from the White House that there was “no risk of exposure.”

Baseball’s troubles come just as the sport, as well as other professional sports leagues, such as the NBA, are beginning tentative, fan-free attempts at resuming play. Their success is tied to the morale of many Americans who value team play as a diversion from life’s stresses. 

All the more reason to resolve to wear a mask and keep your distance from others. This pandemic will not last forever, but it can be eased somewhat right now by smart behavior.