Trump’s back-to-work push pits billionaires against the doctors

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Business leaders in the U.S. are getting impatient with the national economic shutdown caused by coronavirus and are increasingly echoing President Donald Trump, who says he doesn’t want “the cure to be worse than the problem.”

Trump, who spoke to several billionaire hedge fund and private equity managers Tuesday about reopening the U.S. economy, said on Fox News that he hopes to get the economy opening up by Easter, April 12.

Also urging a speedy recovery, David Neeleman, who founded JetBlue and WestJet, said Monday that the suffering from a huge economic downturn will outweigh the damage from the disease. “There’s too much confusion — nobody has jobs, people are losing their houses, kids are home from school,” he said by phone. “What we’re doing today, we have the worst of all worlds.”

Apple Inc. retail stores are planning to reopen nationally in the first half of April on a staggered basis.

Meanwhile, state officials are still moving toward shutdown. On Monday, governors and health officials in Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon and West Virginia became the latest to order residents to stay at home, joining other states including New York, California and Illinois. Wisconsin’s governor issued a similar order Tuesday.

Bill Gurley, a general partner at Benchmark Capital in Woodside, Calif., focused on the downside risks to such moves. He took to Twitter to say that there are potential costs that have to be weighed against a shutdown of the economy — including personal bankruptcies and suicides.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard predicted the U.S. unemployment rate may hit 30% in the second quarter, along with a 50% drop in gross domestic product. Morgan Stanley said Sunday it expects the U.S. economy to plummet 30% on an annualized basis in the second quarter.

Former Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein posted on Twitter on Sunday that he supports “extreme measures” to flatten the virus curve, but said those at lower risk of the disease should return to work “within a very few weeks,” pointing out dangers a longer shutdown would bring to the economy. The banker’s tweet stirred strong reactions, including from hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, who renewed his call for a 30-day shutdown to fight the pandemic.

Trump last week had helped roll out a plan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to encourage most people to stay at home, a campaign due to end about March 31. It’s what comes next that’s in question, with some people advocating looser restrictions on healthy or younger workers while keeping at-risk populations at home.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday that he shares Trump’s frustration and desire to get people back to work, but that protecting people and the economy are not mutually exclusive — and that the economy won’t recover if hospitals are overwhelmed and people are at risk.

Doctors say people need to stay indoors for several weeks or even months to contain the spread of the virus, and that even allowing younger people to contact each other risks spreading it more quickly than it can be contained. Younger people have shown lower morbidity rates, but people under 40 have died from the virus.

“We’re not abandoning the health professionals’ advice but there is a clamor to try to reopen the economy, perhaps make it less of a shut-in,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Tuesday.

In an apparent response, the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, and American Nurses Association on Tuesday released a joint letter asking people to #StayHome.

In some states, the stay-at-home mandates have multiple exemptions, some of it influenced by business lobbying groups.

Ohio officials, whose aggressive actions included closing the polls in the state’s March 17 primary, had input from business groups as it issued a stay-at-home order and closed non-essential businesses. The order included broad exclusions for manufacturers and companies that supply essential businesses, building and construction trades and other businesses that can remain open if they take safety precautions such as maintaining 6-foot distancing.

“When these companies go down, they don’t come back,” said Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, citing contradictions in other states that allowed ventilator-makers to remain open but not the machinists or paint shops that supply them.

Roger Geiger, Ohio executive director for the National Federation of Independent Business, pointed to a company in Lima, Ohio, that makes pallets Proctor & Gamble Co. uses to ship bleach.

“This is a fine balancing act that local, state and federal officials have to wrestle with,” Geiger said. “How do we, first and foremost, protect the health and safety of our citizens — and yet, how do we keep from doing such damage to the economy that we can’t recover?”

DeWine said he is erring on the side of saving lives. “We don’t want to keep these orders on one second more than we have to,” DeWine tweeted Monday.

Airline entrepreneur Neeleman says he’s increasingly hopeful that the Trump administration will find a more targeted way to protect vulnerable people from harm, while letting the economy get moving again.

“I’m starting to see a pin light at the end of the tunnel here,” Neeleman said. He is among those who say the best course would be an aggressive quarantine of people with underlying health conditions and the elderly while allowing the rest of the population to start to get back to work.


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