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Amid The COVID-19 Pandemic, Consumers Aren't Buying Despite States Reopening


Political leaders may be wary of imposing more lockdowns despite these surging coronavirus cases. But consumers are making their own choices about whether to go out and spend money. And many are locking down their wallets. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Texas was one of the states that moved most aggressively this spring to reopen its economy. Houston bartender Blair Ault (ph) says, at first, it was nice to see all of her old customers.

BLAIR AULT: For sure, all the regulars came through. And it was wonderful to see them. They were also the people who were most willing to follow all of the safety rules, like wearing masks and things, that we put in place.

HORSLEY: On weekends in particular, though, Blair says a lot of bar hoppers aren't interested in wearing masks. As new infections and hospitalizations in the state have soared, the risk of going out seems less and less worth it.

AULT: Even as a bartender, I do frequent bars. And I have completely cut that out. And I know that just a lot of other people who are - I want to say - sensible are making that choice as well.

HORSLEY: Economists can now monitor those choices in something like real time by studying credit card data and online restaurant reservations. University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee used cellphone location data to track foot traffic at more than 2 million businesses around the country. He found wherever the coronavirus death toll increased, customers dialed back their shopping. And whether the government told them to stay home or not didn't make a lot of difference.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: The virus is the boss. This is not a thing to be decided by governors or mayors or anybody. People have to feel comfortable to go out. And if they don't, they're going to stay home.

HORSLEY: Goolsbee says the best - and maybe only - way to heal the U.S. economy is to get control of the pandemic. Otherwise, no matter how much politicians try to sell the reopening, many consumers won't be buying.

GOOLSBEE: If we start getting another big cluster of cases that turn into a rise in deaths, we could be in for another significant economic hit.

HORSLEY: Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics is already seeing that in places like Texas and Arizona. As infections in an area spiral up, people's interest in going out and spending money goes down.

GREGORY DACO: That's one of the interesting features of the real-time data is that in the states that are the most affected and some of the largest cities within those states, we're seeing people being more cautious about dining out, for instance.

HORSLEY: Restaurant traffic in Houston, which was halfway back to normal in early June, has fallen sharply again in recent days. Daco's now watching closely to see what happens in New York and Massachusetts, which were hard hit early in the pandemic, but where caseloads have now dropped. This week, New York began to allow outdoor restaurant dining. Daco says that experience will test whether a slower, more cautious reopening is possible without a new spike in infections.

DACO: Those were places that saw increased mobility but that, so far, have still been on the downward trajectory in terms of the health situation.

HORSLEY: In Texas, some businesses, including Apple stores, are voluntarily closing their doors. Blair Ault is scheduled to be back behind the bar tonight. But she's got her fingers crossed for a quiet shift.

AULT: I'm going to be honest, I'm hoping that people stay home - especially with the uptick in Texas - even though, yes, it affects my paycheck. But I would respect people trying to make more safe choices overall.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.