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The Latest Economic And Health Effects Of Pandemic


On this holiday this year, the country is facing a serious health emergency. COVID-19 cases are surging in several states and in some cases are setting new records almost every day. In some places, officials are urging people to stay home and enjoy Fourth of July celebrations like fireworks from their houses.

President Trump has taken a different approach. Yesterday, he traveled to South Dakota for a fireworks celebration in front of Mount Rushmore. Social distancing and wearing masks were not required. And tonight, the president will be presiding over another fireworks display in Washington, D.C.

But the pandemic continues. And that's where we begin now - with the latest on the coronavirus surge and what it could mean for the future of the nation's economy as so many businesses are anxious to reopen. For that, we're joined by NPR science correspondent Rebecca Hersher.

Hi, Rebecca.


PFEIFFER: And also with us is NPR business correspondent Scott Horsley.

Scott, welcome to you, too.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's good to be with you.

PFEIFFER: Rebecca, coronavirus outbreaks are hitting different parts of the United States differently at different times. As you look across the country at where cases are spiking, where are things particularly bad now?

HERSHER: Yeah. So the U.S. is now consistently exceeding 50,000 new cases per day. And that's significantly higher, just to give you a sense, than the peak back in the spring. So we're basically climbing a bigger mountain, but we don't know where the top is. At least five states set a single-day record on Friday - Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina.

And just to give you a sense of the rapid increase that's happening in some places, Florida - its daily new cases have increased nearly tenfold in the last month. Texas has hit a record for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. The governor has banned elective medical procedures in eight counties. And that's really an indication that authorities are worried about running out of space.

PFEIFFER: And many states had been reopening pretty aggressively. But now we're seeing some backtracking. So give us more of a sense of the range of response you're seeing from state authorities and what kinds of restrictions are being imposed.

HERSHER: It is a range. So in Florida, Miami-Dade and Broward Counties closed beaches for the weekend. There's a county curfew in Miami-Dade County. In Texas, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, ordered residents in counties with 20 or more cases to wear masks in public. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered indoor dining and movie theaters to close in counties where the virus appears to be spreading rapidly. And then on the southern border, the Mexican state of Sonora, which mostly borders Arizona, the governor there said only essential visitors can cross from the U.S.

PFEIFFER: Scott, on the economic front, this week, we got some relatively good employment news. There is still fairly high unemployment. But as businesses reopened, there were 4.8 million jobs added in June - although how could that recovery be affected by COVID-19 surges and possibly more business closings?

HORSLEY: The spike in infections could certainly bring slower job growth in the weeks to come. And it could even jeopardize some of the jobs of those people who just went back to work. Obviously, wherever those states are backtracking in their reopening efforts, closing bars and the like, that means fewer jobs.

But even if the state and local government doesn't take that step, consumers will vote with their pocketbooks. We have seen throughout this pandemic, wherever health conditions really deteriorate, shoppers cut back on their spending. They don't go out to eat as much. They certainly aren't going to go to concerts or ballgames. So until we get a handle on the virus, we're not going to see a really robust and lasting economic recovery.

PFEIFFER: Right. Just because businesses reopen their doors does not mean people will walk through them. Now, many people who are unemployed have gotten a big boost from that extra $600 a week in unemployment payments that Congress passed as part of its pandemic relief package months ago. It's actually made some people reluctant to go back to work because it would mean a pay cut. But that benefit expires at the end of this month unless Congress extends it. Scott, how could the expiration of that additional money impact the recession?

HORSLEY: It would certainly cut into a lot of people's buying power. Government relief payments, whether you're talking about those supplemental unemployment benefits or those $1,200 direct payments that so many people got, have really played a huge role in propping up the economy during these past few months.

Now, there are a lot of complaints about the way those unemployment benefits are structured, whether they're fair. As you say, it's - there's a suggestion they might be creating a disincentive for people to go out and find new jobs. But no matter how you slice it, it's going to take a long time for those 30 million people to go back to work. And if that extra $600 a week goes away, that's going to obviously be a hardship for a lot of families. But it's also going to leave a big hole in the economy, which is so dependent on consumer spending.

PFEIFFER: Rebecca, this surge in COVID-19 cases in some parts of the country comes as other parts of the country that were among the first to be hard-hit by the virus, like New York and Washington state, are finally getting back to semi-normal. Are any lessons learned from those early hotspots being put to good use by the states now dealing with spikes?

HERSHER: There's actually a stark difference between the current restrictions in places that have a lot of new cases and the restrictions that used to be in place - say, in New York, when they were in a similar position. So, for example, in Texas and Florida, they're scaling back the reopening. But even so, people can gather in churches and sing, eat inside restaurants, get a massage. For comparison, in New York, everything except for essential food shopping and picking up medication was basically prohibited for weeks.

And that works. It controlled the outbreak. It flattened the curve. California seems to be trying to apply some of those lessons more strictly. Governor Newsom all but pleaded with his citizens to stay inside if they can this weekend. But we really haven't seen a return to stay-at-home orders, even though epidemiologists say that Arizona, Florida and South Carolina are headed toward a situation where statewide stay-at-home orders will be necessary.

PFEIFFER: Right. It feels like there's this threat of full-on lockdowns becoming required again. So how did we get to this point?

HERSHER: Simply put, not enough testing for coronavirus, not enough contact tracing for people who test positive and not enough isolation for people who are sick. That is how you identify and control cases before they become local outbreaks.

PFEIFFER: Scott, going back to the economy, we seem to be getting mixed messages from various economic indicators. So the stock market is doing stronger than expected. That's good. But layoffs keep coming. That's ominous. How do you reconcile all of that and try to forecast what it means for the U.S. economy long-term?

HORSLEY: The U.S. economy is resilient, and it is possible to make the kind of adjustments we need and still make the products that we all need and want. You have to keep workers far apart, got to use face coverings. But these kind of adjustments are not impossible. They do take effort. They do take creativity. That's what we're all going to have to do until we have a vaccine. Anyone who thinks you can just open up the doors and turn on the lights and go back to business as usual is probably going to be disappointed.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Scott Horsley and NPR's Rebecca Hersher.

Thanks to both of you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

HERSHER: Thanks. 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.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.