21 May 2020 by Alex Long, Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, and CSaP Junior Policy Fellow
Covid-19 and the two economies
Divides and dichotomies are garnering a fair amount of attention during these chaotic, confusing, trying, and whatever term you have been using, times. Even before 2020, journalism and discourse about government and the unfair allocation of resources were posed in black and white terms with winners and losers or haves and have nots. During the height of the pandemic, these inequities were the most starkly seen in the low vs high-income communities, people of color vs white people, and those with job security vs those without such luxuries.
These dual realities persist and will continue to grow more divergent and potentially more publicized—hopefully resulting in proportional action to fill in the gaps that COVID-19 has taken advantage of. As we, the United States, begin to reopen there comes a new set of issues that are not completely systemic. They are specific to this moment and a symptom of the combination of capitalism and a lack of clear government guidance on the reopening of businesses. This is the issue of competition in the free market and what it means to be successful amidst reopening.
Take an example of two Italian restaurants on the same street in the same neighborhood with similar parameters when it comes to capacity, staffing, and space. Each restaurant is weighing the possibilities of reopening all with the looming nature that they are a part of a global experiment. An experiment measuring two things. First, can an economy reopen safely and keep the curve “flattened?” Second, how will the public determine their patronage post-shelter in place?
In normal times, consumers already use their wallets as a signifier of brands they support. That support is rooted in multiple reasons --some practical like the brand’s cost-effectiveness. But sometimes the support is rooted in politics, morality, or a lifestyle aesthetic. Similar to the surge of conservative support for Chik Fil A during their public anti-LGBT controversy.
As the drumbeat of phased reopening reached a true cacophony, and 50 out of 50 of the United States are in some form of reopening, detailed guidance has been missing, released through leaks and, finally, released with little promotion. This behind the scenes approach was caused by fears that the directives were both “overly prescriptive” and restrictive. But this guidance is key to ensuring two economies do not arise and a new competition isn’t waged between small businesses who already are operating in the dark with both hands tied behind their backs.
Without meticulous guidance and a system that the American public can easily see and understand, the aforementioned Italian restaurants will have to enter a new form of marketing. Marketing that will have to convince the customers that they will be safe and they will enjoy the experience. Thus, creating a new competitive arms race to fight for the confidence of the community.
In some ways, this can be seen as a positive. It makes sense that the businesses that reopen are required to explain how safe their establishment is. But because of general discrepancies between these street corner institutions, some may be more effective at going above and beyond the necessary and potentially wading into the waters of a false sense of security.
With unregulated technologies like thermal cameras, businesses may appear to be progressive when in reality they are unknowingly investing in public image over public safety. These cameras and other COVID detectors could be held up as an alternative to sterile curbside pickup for retail stores or a replacement for manually taking core body temperature. The safer options could be perceived as overkill or arcane next to a device made by Silicon Valley and marketed by New York City.
Small business owners that can spend on expensive and seemingly innovative technologies are not at fault here. So many are doing what they think is right to get back to normal and to make a living. The fault here lies in the messaging and public understanding of what is safe, what is overkill, what is false security, and what is dangerous.
The point that each business, county, city, and state is different is well taken. But there is a time and a place for cookie-cutter policies and a whole country threat that is forced upon the economy is the time and the place to set standards. The lack of clarity could lead to picking winners and losers by forcing unfair competition. Small businesses will have to both convey consumer safety and thoughtfulness while also making it up as they go. And while the creativity of these businesses has been admirable and heartening, no small business owner should have to bear the burden of creating science-based policies amidst a pandemic of unknown proportions.