COLUMBUS — Business won’t be as usual as Ohio gradually relaxes its stay-at-home order: Plexi-glass barriers, curbside pickup and masks will quickly become the norm. Small businesses that have been closed for weeks may never reopen. And even those businesses that survived the first few months of the pandemic may find weak consumer demand to be as much of a challenge as adapting to the new expectations for social distancing.
Gov. Mike DeWine set a May 1 goal to gradually allow non-essential business to restart, but public health experts and economists warn of a slow recovery that may be complicated by future outbreaks of the novel coronavirus and a difficult re-entry to the workforce for the 22 million Americans who suddenly lost their jobs.
“I don’t think anybody really realized how large the economic impact of this was going to be,” said John Navin, dean of the Dicke College of Business Administration at Ohio Northern University.
Navin does not anticipate a quick rebooting of the economy, as businesses will reopen in phases, and workers will slowly re-enter the workforce. Consumer demand, in turn, may take time to recover.
“We knew we had to do stay-at-home orders. We knew we needed to do all these things,” Navin said. “But our infrastructure in terms of unemployment support, for example, just wasn’t there to support this kind of massive unemployment. You’re seeing it from even the government bailout in terms of small business assistance, for example. We’ve seen that they ran out of money. They shut it down on Thursday because the demand was much greater than anyone expected it would be.”
Public health experts agree that we will see future outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. The emphasis now is to keep those secondary outbreaks contained, thereby avoiding widespread lockdowns until a vaccine or medical treatment is widely available.
That’s why relaxing social distancing guidelines will be gradual, phased in over weeks or even months, depending on the number of new cases and the ability of businesses to adapt to new distancing and sanitation criteria.
“The idea is that as cases drop to very few to no new cases, that’s where we do the pivot,” said Mike Oglesbee, director of the Infectious Disease Institute and a professor of virology and comparative pathology at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
From there, Oglesbee said policymakers could identify operations that are able to function at low density. Distancing measures should still be followed, he said, in combination with new sanitation measures.
Testing and surveillance efforts will need to improve so public health agencies are able to quickly identify communities with new outbreaks and quarantine anyone who has been exposed. And the introduction of antibody testing, which identifies the presence of antibodies in a person who has already recovered from the disease, could help communities determine how many people have immunity, although it is unknown how long that immunity lasts.
“If you’ve been infected and have overcome the infection, whether you were symptomatic or not, you’re going to have short-term immunity,” Oglesbee said. “This is based on what we know from other coronaviruses. Those individuals come at low-risk for becoming infected and also low risk to the community at large. We’re only starting to see those measures online.”
State Sen. Matt Huffman would like to see a regional approach to reopening non-essential business, as some parts of the state have seen fewer confirmed cases and are less densely populated than others.
“The suggestion that nothing can happen for a year until a vaccine has been developed has never been done before in world history and would be devastating to the world economy,” he said.
Huffman’s office is now tracking the number of tests administered and active cases in each county in his district to help guide that process, should Ohio pursue a regional model to restarting business.
The Mercer County Health District is already in the process of drafting one of those plans, which outlines how restaurants, manufacturers and retail stores now classified as non-essential could operate so long as the number of active cases in the county remains low.
Restaurants may limit the number of tables to ensure customers remain six feet away from one another, for example. Workers may also be required to wear some form of personal protective equipment, limit the number of people allowed in break rooms or common areas and sanitize high-touch surfaces frequently.
“It’s about minimizing risk and what can be done without taking a great deal of risk when it’s not necessary,” said Jason Menchhofer, administrator for the Mercer County Health District.
Menchhofer said any such plan would likely be phased in over time but is still hypothetical at this point.
Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.