As of this week, 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With that being said, it's obvious that stay-at-home orders are disrupting the American economy. But when will it be safe for policymakers to suggest non-essential employees head back to work — especially those of us whose businesses can't operate remotely?
According to a new publication by Harvard Medical School, "in the coming weeks and months, a drop in cases of COVID-19 is expected across the US, according to models from the University of Washington. Once that happens, public health experts and national, state, and local leaders will likely give the go-ahead for employers across many industries to gradually reopen, and employees will return to work. That could happen in some areas as soon as May or June."
They temper that these reopens will likely be incremental and require later closures if there are new outbreaks. So, what will these increments look like?
In Spain and in China, work restrictions have already been lifted on the manufacturing and construction industries as long as proper social distancing measures are maintained. This approach will likely be cited by experts to reopen businesses that require physical presence but can be done at a safe distance.
In the U.S., Harvard suspects "restaurants and smaller offices might reopen at partial capacity, with employees hired back in gradually increasing numbers if all goes well. Later, sporting events and concert venues may reopen. This will probably vary by geography: areas with fewer cases of COVID-19 may ramp up toward higher employment levels more quickly than those hit hardest by the outbreak."
To put it plainly, we may see some small businesses that can't operate remotely reopen at partial capacity as soon as May or June, based on where they're located.
Even if this goes well, reopening larger businesses and events will likely not be encouraged by experts until 60 to 70 percent of the population has been exposed to COVID-19 through infection or vaccine, according to Harvard. Models by the University of Washington suggest only around 10% of the population has been exposed so far, so we will not see concerts or sporting events for a long time — likely until it is decided that we should develop herd immunity or a vaccine is created. If you work in a large office that can operate remotely or in the events industry, you may not be advised to go back to work at full capacity until 2021.
It's important to note that it is likely in some states that businesses will reopen against this expert advice. The timeline on those openings is even less scientific, with local governments being pushed along by protests and economic interests.