Efforts to quickly restart economic activity risk further dividing Americans into two major groups along socioeconomic lines: one that has the power to control its exposure to the coronavirus outbreak and another that is forced to choose between potential sickness or financial devastation.
It is a pick-your-poison fact of the crisis: The pandemic recession has knocked millions of the most economically vulnerable Americans out of work. Rushing to reopen their employers could offer them a financial lifeline, but at a potentially steep cost to their health.
State and federal officials have nowhere near the testing capacity that experts say is needed to track and limit the spread of the virus, and there is no vaccine yet. But states are already reopening, urged on by President Trump, who is eager to restart the United States economy. That push is likely to exacerbate longstanding inequalities, with workers who are college educated, relatively affluent and primarily white able to continue working from home and minimizing outdoor excursions to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.
Those who are lower paid, less educated and employed in jobs where teleworking is not an option would face a bleak choice if states lift restrictive orders and employers order them back to work: expose themselves to the pandemic or lose their jobs. That disempowered group is heavily black and Latino, though it includes lower-income white workers as well.
“It’s sad and scary,” said Tina Watson of Holly Hill, S.C., who has seen her hours cut in half at the Wendy’s where she works. Though her income has dropped from that cutback, she is worried about having to interact with customers when the state relaxes limits that have forced the restaurant to operate as drive-through only in recent weeks. “I’m feeling like my life is at risk if they open up our dining,” Ms. Watson said.
A growing share of workers is increasingly stuck with that choice.
The governors of Georgia and South Carolina have begun allowing some businesses to reopen, even though both states continue to see new infections and what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call “widespread” community spread of the virus. On Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia allowed gyms, nail and hair salons, and bowling alleys to begin operating, with restaurants and movie theaters allowed to open on Monday. Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi and Ohio are also allowing some businesses to start operating again.
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