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Trump thought downplaying the pandemic would help the economy. Biden is betting the opposite

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris walk onto a stage in front of a blue curtain and two U.S. flags
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris arrive before he spoke Friday in Wilmington, Del.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

For most of the pandemic, President Trump’s main strategy was to ignore and downplay risk, with minimal or no federal coordination. He turned mask-wearing into a political act because he said it would hurt the broader economy by spooking already anxious Americans and business leaders.

Now backed by scientists and economists, President-elect Joe Biden, as he begins to implement his own plan to attack the virus and rebuild the economy, is making a starkly different bet: The more you frankly acknowledge and confront the crisis, the better it will be for the economy.

By urging and sometimes even requiring mask-wearing, testing and social distancing — backed by strong federal guidelines and policy — Biden expects that U.S. growth will more quickly
recover.

It won’t look or feel normal, to be sure. But far from discouraging Americans from resuming some of their normal routines, such an approach, experts say, will give them the confidence and tools they need to safely go back to working, shopping and other activities, while also lowering the risk of virus transmission.

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“We could have much more economic activity if everyone were consistently wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing, washing hands, all of those things that we really do know help check the spread of the disease,” said Katherine Baicker, a health policy expert at the University of
Chicago.

“The more we do those things, the more economic activity we can have safely,” she said.

Increasing use of masks by as little as 15% could prevent the need for lockdowns and reduce associated losses by up to $1 trillion, or about 5% of the American economy, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday, citing research from Goldman Sachs.

The CDC, which has been largely sidelined by Trump, also released detailed scientific evidence that cloth masks protect wearers as well as those around them. Previously masks had been described as chiefly benefiting others, not the wearer.

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The new guidance — along with the election of Biden, who is regularly seen in public wearing a mask — could boost public acceptance of what is expected to be a more aggressive policy under the new administration.

“There’s huge need for coordinated federal policy on this,” Baicker said. “We are at the highest levels we’ve seen of transmission, hospitalization. Deaths are still rising, tragically. There’s even more urgent need for anything we can do to mitigate the spread and minimize the harm.”

It may not be an easy sell for Trump loyalists.

In contrast to Biden, Trump’s typical refusal to mask up — except briefly after he became infected and was hospitalized for days — became a symbol of loyalty among the president’s hardcore supporters. That may make it harder for millions of Trump voters to turn the page and accept Biden’s strategy.

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During the campaign, Biden laid out a seven-point plan on a coronavirus response that would have the federal government play a much more active role in leading a consistent, sci-ence-based strategy nationwide, including sharply increased testing, more contact tracing and wider use of personal protective equipment and supplies.

Seeking to get a jump on the challenge, Biden moved quickly as president-elect
to name a blue-ribbon advisory board of doctors and medical policy experts to develop a national COVID-19 strategy.

The group is charged with drafting a comprehensive plan for working with states and communities on embracing science-based best practices for containing hot spots while allowing economic activity to resume wherever it can.

“The Trump administration has not ever excelled in policy and behavior that results in reduction of COVID-19 cases,” said Anne Rimoin, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

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And until Biden’s victory is certified by the electoral college and he is inaugurated in January, there are limits to what he can do.

“I think that what the Biden team could do right this minute is start talking to state leaders, experts, community leaders and get their plan in place so they are ready to roll as soon as it’s possible,” Rimoin said.

If the health policy challenge looks huge, Biden has some good things going for him on the economic front.

Though Biden will inherit an economy in distress, just as he and President Obama did in 2009, the COVID-19 downturn differs in potentially important ways from the Great Recession of 2008-09, which was followed by years of slow, painful recovery.

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The 2008 financial crisis, with its attendant housing bust, destroyed millions of Americans’ financial underpinnings. It took nearly a decade to repair the balance sheets of businesses and households.

By contrast, the underlying economic fundamentals in the United States were fairly solid before the pandemic struck. Consumers’ debts were relatively low and banks and most other businesses well capitalized.

It’s partly for those reasons that the economy has tended to surprise experts in both its robustness and stamina.

Although the labor market has regained only about half of the 22 million jobs lost, recalls and new hiring have continued, albeit at a slowing pace, and the nation’s unemployment rate has been cut by more than half from its 14.9% in April.

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In June, Federal Reserve policymakers were projecting the jobless rate to end this year at 9.3%. It was already down to 6.9% last month.

“Fortunately, you know, the economic recovery has exceeded certainly the downside cases that we were very concerned about, and even exceeded … expectations,” Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell said last week.

Consumer spending has come back nicely, thanks to the fact that so many businesses found they could continue operations with employees working from home and that Washington approved emergency federal funds that included $1,200 checks to individuals and
extra payments for the
unemployed.

Now, despite the bitterness of the political climate, odds are that Congress will pass another round of government aid, although it may not come until after Biden takes office and will probably be smaller than the large-scale fiscal support that Biden and other Democrats were proposing.

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A severe winter could make Biden’s task much harder. The current surge in infection rates has prompted more states and locales to tighten up on restrictions, and others will be cautious about reopening — all of which will weigh on business investment and consumer spending.

Biden has called for more resources for states and municipalities so they can better afford steps to curb the virus and thus, it is hoped, open the way for resumed economic activity sooner.

Biden also may have the good fortune of having a powerful vaccine — given the news that Pfizer’s tests were showing more than 90% effectiveness — although widespread distribution isn’t expected until the middle of next year.

Surveys suggest a large share of Americans may refuse to be vaccinated, but that may change if infection rates keep climbing and
the political climate moderates.

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In a sense, Biden’s challenge may be less economic or medical and more about delivering a message that is coherent, consistent and credible.

“The lack of modeling of good, sensible public health behavior has been eroding public trust in public health, and it has been extremely damaging,” said UCLA’s
Rimoin. “Frankly, the modeling of good behavior is something that Joe Biden does do. And I think that’s critical.”


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