COVID-19: Expect permanent behavioral changes in business and social interactions

Trump predicted earlier this month that the economy would take off like a “rocket ship once we get back to business.”

But experts say the recovery will be far slower.

“It’ll be a very gradual process regardless of what a governor says or the president says,” said Dr. Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor of health policy and political analysis. He said the history of lockdowns, particularly the quarantine of more than 25,000 people around Toronto in 2003 to slow the spread of SARS, shows that it will take weeks, even months, for people to develop the confidence to resume normal activity.

Blendon also warned that a predicted second wave of COVID-19 could reverse any gains made in the interim. It’s not just government, but individual businesses that will need to convince employees and consumers that it’s safe to return, once they decide to reopen.

Social distancing

Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian on Wednesday warned his employees to be prepared for a “choppy, sluggish recovery even after the virus is contained.”

The White House expects businesses “will advertise to the public” about the safety measures they are putting in place when they reopen, said Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council. He said the White House is also considering asking Congress to provide liability protection for employers in case their workers or customers fall sick.

“We want small businesses to have some confidence that if they do reopen, they’ll stay open,” Kudlow said.

The outbreak has infected over 2.5 million people and killed about 180,000 around the world, including more than 45,000 in the U.S., according to a tally compiled by Johns Hopkins University from official government figures, though the true numbers are believed to be far higher.

Mark Schlesinger, a Yale professor of health policy, said it’s going to take time “for people to re-equilibrate emotionally, and it’s very hard to predict how long.” “For lots of reasons we put people on a state of heightened anxiety,” he said.

So even if people who are worried about their economic situation want to get back to work, “it’s less clear whether consumers who would go to a restaurant or a store or the doctor’s office” will change their behavior, he said. “There may be permanent behavioral changes in how people do business and interact as a society.”