On protecting public health and the economy, too


March 25, 2020 10:14AM

Over the past week, there have been increased calls on public officials in our country to mandate a complete lockdown of society. While these calls are well-intentioned, they fail to recognize that our public leaders have a duty to ensure that their short-term response does not unnecessarily destroy our economy for years to come.

Sadly for working Americans, many public officials have succumbed to this pressure. Governors have instituted statewide stay-at-home orders and shuddered “non-essential” businesses, many of which will close their doors and never reopen as a result. Their employees will be left without paychecks. They will be unable to put food on the table and provide for their families. They will have to exhaust their savings, if they have any at all. They will have to file for unemployment and rely on government assistance. Their future job prospects could remain dim in an economy that may take years to recover.

Let me be clear: we should do everything we can to contain and mitigate the pandemic. Beacon’s office closed last week, and I have personally complied with requests to stay home except for necessary travel, as should everyone during this time. 

But the reality is, many businesses cannot close. They simply cannot send their workers home for an unspecified number of days or weeks. As long as they take proper precautions, they can protect their employees and implement public health measures while also continuing to provide their goods or services. This is why national or even statewide stay-at-home and business closure orders are not warranted. 

I for one am proud of Gov. Bill Lee for resisting the call for extreme statewide measures like these. As Gov. Lee noted in a press conference on Monday afternoon, it may make sense to take more drastic measures in urban areas like Memphis and Nashville, but those same measures don’t necessarily work in more rural parts of the state. Having grown up on a 140-acre farm in West Tennessee, I can tell you the idea of “social distancing” back home is less a pandemic measure and more a way of life.

While public health experts are certainly playing a critical role during this time, public officials must also consider the long-term economic consequences of their actions, something the doctors and PhDs advising them aren’t taking into account. Different actions in different parts of the state or country make sense. Limiting human-to-human contact while also allowing businesses to remain open does as well. Extreme measures do not. 

We can both protect public health in the short-run while also minimizing long-term economic damage. Striking the right balance will ensure that we quell this pandemic now, while also ensuring that as many people as possible have a job to go back to in the coming weeks. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. People shouldn’t have to look back and say, “I survived the Coronavirus and all it cost me was everything I had.”