The movement to “reopen” America is a fallacy based on a fantasy.
The fallacy is the notion that lifting stay-at-home orders will result in people going back to their normal routines. This is false. The state-issued stay-at-home orders did not determine most people’s desires to stay home—they merely ratified behaviors that the vast majority of people and institutions were already adopting in response to COVID-19.
The fantasy is that we can go back to what the world looked like 12 weeks ago. This is not possible now and will not be possible until we possess a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Understand that I am not saying that stay-at-home orders should be indefinite. What I am saying is that whenever the stay-at-home orders are rolled back—whether it is tomorrow or a month from now—it will not result in anything like a “reopening” of the country. And the sooner people grasp how completely and fundamentally the world has changed, the faster we’ll be able to adapt to this new reality.
Let’s take a close look at just a couple of examples.
Las Vegas will not “reopen” because the city as we knew it in February 2020 is gone.
Las Vegas is the 28th-largest metropolitan area in America, home to 2.2 million people. Its main business is gambling-related tourism. The city welcomes roughly 42 million visitors a year who pour $58 billion dollars into the local economy and support 370,000 jobs. Almost 40 percent of the area’s workers are employed in the hospitality industry.
Up until this past January, 70,000 people got off an airplane in Las Vegas every single day, mostly to take in the city’s charms.
On these flights, passenger seats are roughly 17 inches wide with 31 inches of pitch. So in order to get to Las Vegas—where the principal pleasure is spending disposable income on hotel rooms, while eating expensive meals, and playing casino games—something like 150 people would share 8,000 cubic feet of cabin space and recycled air for anywhere from one to four hours.
So tell me: When the state of Nevada lifts the stay-at-home order that it issued on March 12 and the casinos that drive the state’s economy reopen their doors, do you think that Las Vegas is going to come roaring back?
Because I do not.
What is much more likely is that the former steady flow of visitors to Las Vegas will resume as a trickle.
There are economic reasons for this: National unemployment levels will be near 20 percent, so people will be grappling with a great deal of financial uncertainty. Disposable income will be at a low ebb. When disposable income is in retreat, people generally do not take extravagant vacations where the primary purpose is to lose money in an entertaining manner.
But there are health reasons, too: People who are older or immunocompromised—or who come into regular contact with someone who is older or immunocompromised—are going to curtail their behavior in order to cut down on unnecessary personal interactions.
Getting on an airplane to fly to a city so that you can stay in a hotel, eat in crowded dining rooms, and stand elbow-to-elbow with strangers around a craps table will be far, far down the list of behaviors on which most people are open to taking a risk.
Which means that the 28th-largest city in America is going to hollow out.
If the tourism industry were to only decline by 30 percent in Las Vegas, it would be an utter catastrophe. No tourists means no work for maids, taxi drivers, cooks, dealers, waiters, and the tens of thousands of jobs that make up the invisible, back-of-the-house operations in hospitality.
No jobs for the people in hospitality means a shockwave to the local economy: The retail and service sectors will be crunched. Real estate values will implode. The strain on social services will be gigantic.
The central fact to be grasped here is that “reopening” the economy is largely a formality until there is a vaccine. Because only then will people modify their behavior to something approximating pre-pandemic levels.