Cautious Progress: Reopening State Economies

The novel coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented challenge for communities and businesses. Lockdown measures have brought daily life to a virtual standstill with no clear end in sight, and infection rates continue to grow and spread, reaching over 800,000 cases and over 40,000 deaths as of April 22. What comes next will depend on the success of containment and testing measures, and the precautions our communities take as they begin to reopen their doors. Once infection rates have slowed to safer levels, many will need guidance to do so in a way that reduces risk as much as possible for employees, employers, and customers. Many states have begun working on roadmaps for this process, focusing on key factors such as testing capabilities and continued protective measures.    

The Harvard Business Review recommends the following prerequisites for reopening a state’s economy, which should be certified by public health officials:

  • The virus’ peak has passed.
  • Health systems confirm that their resources and staff can withstand a second wave.
  • Widely available and unrestricted testing for both active and prior cases.
  • Widely available protective equipment (masks, etc.) and continued social distancing.

Under these conditions, HBR proposes allowing individuals who have recovered from the virus or have demonstrable immunity, and do not belong to high-risk populations, to return to work. This would occur through four steps: 

  • Testing
  • Certification
  • Return to Work
  • Implementation and Fine-Tuning 

HBR warns that states that enact plans for return to work without confirming widespread immunity in their populations risk a second wave of infection.

Ohio is beginning this process, working to create a widespread testing system to track the spread of the virus and monitor any emerging hotspots. The state is also looking at options to randomly sample its population to get a sense of immunity rates.

Similarly, Utah has launched TestUtah, a public-private partnership between state leaders, private corporations, and Silicon Slopes, a nonprofit that empowers and connects Utah’s tech community. The initiative aims to significantly increase testing rates and expand access to tests throughout the state. Drive-through testing locations have been set up in Provo and Orem, and new locations are being added to increase capacity by about 3,000 tests per day. Currently, the tests follow a brief assessment, and are prioritized for individuals with symptoms or who have come in contact with a positive case. If tested positive, individuals answer questions to help track their recent contacts and potential spread. Silicon Slopes is also partnering with state leaders and organizations in Iowa to launch TestIowa, which will add 540,000 new tests to the state’s capacity.

Like these public-private partnerships, collaborations with academic institutions can help states increase capacity. In Maryland, the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) is partnering with state leaders to expand testing capabilities. The state has invested $2.5 million in the partnership, which aims to provide 20,000 tests per day through UMSOM’s lab.  

Testing initiatives such as those in Ohio, Utah, Iowa, and Maryland are especially important as a first guard against the virus’ spread and serve as a baseline for eventual returns to work. Testing provides crucial data for tracking and containment, and needs to be ubiquitous before we can begin returning to daily life.

Several states have also formed regional pacts to reopen their economies based on agreed upon public health and economic outcomes. On the East coast, public health officials from New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts will contribute to a regional working group on a safe approach to reopening businesses. On the West coast, the governors of California, Washington, and Oregon will similarly work together to design an incremental plan for returns to work. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced the following priorities for a safe return to work:

  • Expanding testing
  • Protecting high risk groups, including seniors, the medically vulnerable and people in facilities like nursing homes
  • Ensuring hospitals have enough beds and supplies to care for patients
  • Progress in developing treatments
  • Ability of schools and businesses to support physical distancing
  • Ability to decide when to reinstitute stay-at-home orders if needed

Until these goals are met, Gov. Newsom stresses the importance of ensuring hospitals’ ability to care for the sick, preventing infection in people who are at high risk for severe disease, building capacity to protect the health and well-being of the public, and reducing social, emotional, and economic disruptions.

As testing programs ramp up and states continue preparing to reopen their economies, many businesses are looking for guidance as they make their own plans for returning to work. This process will vary across industries, with different risk levels for high-contact occupations such as retail, restaurants, and theaters, as well as for manufacturing and other industries that have specific infrastructure not currently designed to be safe in pandemic conditions. 

Several manufacturers have laid out safe work policies to address these concerns. Automotive manufacturer Lear’s Safe Work Playbook outlines different return to work topics and associated tasks that will be undertaken to reduce risk as its facilities reopen. These include forming a Pandemic Response Team, providing personal protective equipment, enhancing disinfecting protocols, running health screenings, and training employees, among other measures. Similarly, auto manufacturer Magna has developed the Smart Start Playbook to guide its return to work proposed for next month, which covers similar topics for training employees and developing new health safety protocols.

These early efforts demonstrate that clear planning, with a focus on gathering accurate data before major changes are made, will be essential for any safe process for returning to work. Enhanced testing capacity and incremental returns based on reduced risk to employees and customers will set the priorities for many states and communities moving forward. Once states have determined the time to begin this process, businesses will need to have clear protocols, tasks, and training for their employees to ensure that they are returning to a safe workplace. 


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