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  • The Narrative Project

Why Rush to Reopen? We’re Not Ready

By Mercy A. Quaye

May 18, 2020

Fred V. Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis and an economics professor at UConn.
Fred Carstensen. Photo courtesy of CTInsider

Fred Carstensen started his Tuesday morning by dropping his dog off to the groomer — curbside, of course. This morning chore, like so many other things in our new normal, has been made simpler and even safer through the expectation of contactless transactions and state social distancing orders. So why are we rushing to relax the very restrictions that kept us safe?

Getting people back to work is inarguably important. But as an economist, professor of finance and the director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the UConn School of Business, Carstensen says the state doesn’t decide when things go back to normal. People do.

Gov. Ned Lamont and Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman released guidelines earlier this month on what phase one for reopening our state’s economy could look like. The guidance, which was released late on a Friday night, was reportedly produced in consultation with industry groups, organized labor and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

State restrictions are expected to be relaxed in a multiphase process beginning Wednesday, but there are still too many things left unknown to be certain the timing is right.

Carstensen uses the Netherlands and Sweden as case studies for examining how economies are propelled. Though neither country took the approach of a sweeping shutdown, both are seeing similar impacts to their economies, he said.

“The reason that the Netherlands and Sweden are so relevant is because it shows us that what the state does and what businesses do isn’t the actual driver,” he said. “The real drivers are in what people’s behaviors are. … Their economies are contracting almost the same as everyone else’s because the vast majority of people are aware of the dangers that are involved and they don’t want to get sick or expose people.”

According to a recent Quinnipiac Poll, released just days before Lamont’s guidelines, the majority of residents in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut don’t want to rush to reopen. Their data show that nearly 60 percent of residents in each state want to see a phased process over the next few months or longer.

“And even if restrictions were lifted in the next few weeks, roughly seven out of 10 in each state would be uncomfortable going to restaurants or bars, more than eight out of 10 wouldn’t be comfortable going to a large sports or entertainment event, and people in each state are split about returning to work outside the home,” the release states.

According to the poll, “there is a clear consensus that the state should be prioritizing slowing the spread of the coronavirus by keeping people home, even if it hurts the economy.” More than 70 percent of tri-state residents want states to better manage the virus, while only about a quarter in each state think reopening the economy should be the top priority.

Economy aside, it’s still unclear if we’ve flattened the curve enough to justify a rush to reopen.

Less than one week before the state’s reopen date, Lamont announced 94 new fatalities in the coronavirus pandemic, the highest one-day loss of life since 125 deaths were reported on April 24. If this is any indication, state leaders have an obligation to slow any proposal to reopen until we can guarantee safety, especially for the communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

The state’s own data released daily shows that black and Latino residents have a twice greater risk to test positive for COVID-19. And with inadequate data on the race or ethnicity of confirmed cases, it’s really hard to trust that the state will be prepared to protect the most vulnerable among us.

The racial undertones aren’t lost on Carstensen. As protests to reopen sprout across the country and around the state, it’s becoming painfully clear that the motivation to reopen is either motivated by capitalism or racism — neither of which will bode well for our state’s lower and middle classes, on which the economy runs.

“Incidentally it’s very clear that part of the protests, which are from often white supremacist Neo-Nazi groups, started when the data came out that black and Latinos are much more at risk,” Carstensen said. “Then suddenly there’s a rush to go back to normal.”

But if we get this wrong, what will normal look like?

Historically, Connecticut’s ability to bounce back from economic strain has clocked in slower than our neighboring states and the nation’s average pace of recovery since the Great Recession. Moreover, we know that our state has a smaller, less diverse middle class.

Economic indicators examined in a 2019 paper produced by Connecticut Voices for children (a client of The Narrative Project) show that in Connecticut the economic recovery is even slower and more unequal than the historically slow and historically unequal national recovery. The key finding revealed that for some racial and ethnic groups, the middle class in Connecticut is now less inclusive than before the Great Recession.

These findings are supported by Carstensen, who shared some key metrics analyzing our state’s rate of growth.

Connecticut’s economy shrank nearly 10 percent through 2008-2016, then began to see some modest growth. It is now about 5 percent smaller than it was at its peak in 2008, comparable to where it was in 2005.

“Connecticut has a special problem,” Carstensen said. “Our state has a history of slower recovery. Unless we come out of the pandemic with an aggressive set of policies that began to address how the state has disconnected itself from the national and global economy, we don’t stand a chance.”

Look, with nearly 500,000 people out of jobs in the state, it’s tempting to get the cogs of the economy moving again. But I’ve yet to see any plans, guidelines or even intentions to ensure this opening will not inequitably impact black, Latino and low-income communities who were already facing challenges in the wake of the Great Recession.

What will the new normal be if we rush to achieve it? Right now, all signs point to a cementing of previously existing inequities and potential increased loss of life if we see the rates of infection climb in historically underserved communities.

“We have been becoming dramatically less equal for a long time in this country,” Carstensen said. And with undertones of racial incompetency, a rush to reopen has the potential to do more harm than good to the economy at large and to populations who are sick of taking the brunt of the harm.

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