Closing a great city was simple, it turns out, compared to the task ahead of reopening it safely. What we were told to do was clear and simple: “stay home.” But instructions for restarting the economy will necessarily be more complex, health and business experts explain: Let’s get back to work, but in a way that protects public health against resurgence of the virus.
Public health officials have identified thresholds that must be met before businesses can reopen. Covid-19 cases must fall dramatically so hospitals and emergency workers can escape from crisis mode. Also, a far better system to test for the virus must be established to quickly isolate those who might spread it.
But what no one has yet done is help Peter Madonia figure out what to do with the salt shakers.
He owns Madonia Brothers Bakery in the Bronx. Last Thursday Madonia was sitting with a fellow restaurateur at Enzo’s, across Arthur Avenue from the bakery, and he found himself studying the table setting. Could salt shakers transmit the virus? What about the Vinegar and oil bottles? Or the menus? Would they have to be removed or wiped clean for each new customer?
“What’s most important to people who run business is clarity,” Madonia explained. “Tell me what I can and cannot do and I’ll pivot my business.”
This story will be repeated 220,000 times in the weeks ahead. That is the number of private businesses in the city. Each industry and every company will have specific challenges. There won’t be a two-word solution like stay home for everyone to follow.
At the city’s largest private employer, JPMorganChase, 70% of the employees are working from home now, according to the chair and CEO, Jamie Dimon. What about the rest? At my neighborhood branch all transaction is now conducted through the teller window behind Plexiglas. Nadim and Theresa no longer greet me with a hug or handshake and kids can’t get a lollipop (and I can’t get a cup of coffee).
Adaptation has cost us that feeling of a community bank, which perhaps is OK for a Fortune 50 megacorporation. But Dean and Theresa have their jobs and I can retrieve my money. But what does adaptation look like for movies, theater, retailing or the Madonia Brothers Bakery?
“Somebody needs to make these rules,” said Madonia, who knows a lot about this from his years in city government and at the Rockefeller Foundation before he returned to run the bakery started by his grandfather in 1918. “There has to be consistency and clarity from the medical profession and the government.”
It may seem the wrong time to even broach this talk of brighter days, but people who have managed this type of crisis before say the conversation is vital. “It’s never, never too early to think about recovery,” said Dr. Bruce Alwyard of the World Health Organization. By envisioning where we will need and want to be in a month or two, or three, we will do a better job managing today. Mayor DeBlasio says he hopes to see some businesses reopening by May or June.
“I do think it’s time to have a serious public conversation and a lot of analysis about that,” said the chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell. “We need to have a plan.”
Or maybe it would be more accurate to say we need to have plans. Each step will need to be thought through in detail. New York, for example, will need to understand why so many of its transit workers have been afflicted by coronavirus if we mean to invite people to commute to work again.
One advantage New York has is that other countries have gone through this ahead of us. Wuhan reopened after 74 days of a shutdown even tighter than what we are living through. In Austria, reopening will start after Easter with smaller businesses first.
In Germany, a prestigious think tank, IFO, proposed last week that recovery plans be tailored both by industry and by region to generate the largest economic recovery at the lowest health risk. “The attempt to centrally control the resumption of production would be of a planned economy nature and would not work in practice,” the group said. “This resumption must be controlled primarily by the institutions and companies themselves.”
To achieve this the group said recovery plans should be designed by task forces of public health experts, business leaders, workers, government officials and other parties.
“There is a need to have these cross-disciplinary efforts to think it through together,” said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, who served as both New York City Health Commissioner and head of the federal Food and Drug Administration. “That makes sense,” said Peter Madonia, noting that when he was in city government he would often pull in a well know restaurateur to work with city regulators to design rules that were effective and workable.
Maybe Peggy Hamburg and Peter Madonia would co-chair the task force to help restaurants reopen. Then we can all have lunch on Arthur Avenue.