A straightforward solution

On July 22, Baltimore City announced that indoor dining at bars and restaurants will once again be suspended, reversing the reopening that had occurred only a month earlier. This move is only the latest in a series of re-closures across the United States, as the opening of bars and other businesses has been reversed in Arizona, Texas, Florida, California, and numerous other locations. These reversals come as a result of increased cases of COVID-19 in many U.S. cities and states. They also threaten the economic recovery that has occurred since the pandemic brought the economy to a halt earlier in the year.

While these closures are intended to slow the spread of coronavirus in our communities, they are not the only way to prevent infection. Many jurisdictions have either recommended or mandated the use of face masks, which studies have shown significantly decrease the transmission rate of the virus. Analysis from Goldman Sachs has also suggested that increasing mask usage in the United States by 15 percentage points could preserve up to 5 percent of GDP (equal to more than $1 trillion), by avoiding or limiting the need for further economic lockdowns. This is consistent with research on the 1918 flu pandemic, which shows that cities in the United States with greater enforcement of social distancing had significantly better economic outcomes following the pandemic. Unfortunately, mask usage in the United States is far from universal, as wearing masks has become highly politicized due, in part, to President Trump’s mockery of the practice and initial refusal to recommend them.

If so many Americans did not refuse to wear a mask, it is likely that states and localities would not be making the decision to shut down businesses for a second time. The director of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, stated in a recent interview that “if we could get everyone to wear a mask right now I think in four, six, eight weeks we could have this epidemic under control.” Considering that the CDC first began recommending masks on April 3, it is reasonable to believe that with widespread mask usage, we would be dealing with a far smaller number of cases today. In this scenario, not only would we avoid another round of business closures, but we might even have seen the type of fast-paced recovery that Trump had originally predicted. Instead, the additional closures are likely to lead to additional bankruptcies and long-term damage to the economy.

It’s not the economy, stupid

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump has focused entirely on the economic implications, arguing passionately in favor of reopening businesses while providing no leadership on testing and disease mitigation. This has been a clear example of missing the forest for the trees, since there cannot be any real economic recovery as long as the virus spreads through the American population. In short, the economic crisis is not the problem, it is the symptom. This lack of proper direction is seen even more clearly in the administration’s effort to remove any funds for testing, contract tracing, or the CDC from the newest stimulus bill. Without a serious effort to control the virus, any direct economic aid will ultimately fail in preventing economic disaster for the United States.

That is not to say that economic stimulus is not an important tool. Government spending has been absolutely necessary in order to avoid an even greater economic disaster. However, as long as we do not directly address the spread of the pandemic, economic stimulus can only serve to delay the inevitable.

For example, look at the major pieces of stimulus used so far during the economic shutdown. Loans given to businesses through the Payroll Protection Program are intended to bridge the financial gap until each business is able to reopen, but are ultimately meaningless if the business is never able to open or is forced to shut down for a second time. In Baltimore, restaurants and stores are closing permanently as they face a long-term, unsustainable decrease in customers and sales. Direct payments, like the $1,200 check received by most Americans, can serve to increase consumer spending and boost the economic recovery. But this is another temporary solution, meant to support struggling families and businesses, without addressing the actual reason why they are struggling. Since the beginning of this crisis, the most effective way to support the American economy has always been to focus on eliminating the pandemic. As long as the virus is spreading, the country has little choice but to extend stimulus programs indefinitely or face economic disaster. With Congress arguing over the total cost and scope of the newest stimulus bill, it is ironic that the most straightforward and effective method to combat the pandemic is also the cheapest – wearing a piece of cloth over your face.

Although it is too late to prevent the damage that has already been done, it is not too late to reduce the severity of the economic recession that is still to come. Consistent, proper mask usage across the United States would serve not only to get the pandemic under control, but would ultimately serve to rescue the American economy. Crucially, it would allow businesses to stay open, which would lower unemployment, increase spending and GDP, and set us on the path back to economic recovery. It would appear that even President Trump is hearing this message, as he has finally begun to recommend the use of masks in public spaces. While masks are not enough to completely put our lives (and the economy) back to normal, they would go a long way towards preventing further disaster.