The nation’s foremost infectious-disease expert — and most prominent public face on the COVID-19 virus — has a sobering and unsatisfying answer for those aching for a silver lining.
“You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday during an interview on CNN.
“If you keep seeing this acceleration, it doesn’t matter what you say. One week, two weeks, three weeks — you’ve got to go with what the situation on the ground is,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.
That dose of hard-to-swallow reality, accompanied by stay-at-home orders from Gov. Roy Cooper and Triad government leaders, symbolize why it’s hard to find light in the midst of the COVID-19 darkness that could last for months.
Yet, in the midst of an unprecedented socioeconomic lockdown, light continues to pierce through.
Such as figuring out how to hold the annual Easter sunrise service in God’s Acre at Old Salem, where it has been conducted faithfully for 248 years.
The service will be live-streamed beginning at 6 a.m. April 12 from Home Moravian Church sanctuary, mixed with live shots of God’s Acre.
The decision by the Salem Congregation Central Elders to worship by streaming only “came as a sad and disappointing concession to the coronavirus,” said Chaz Snider, assistant pastor at Calvary Moravian Church. “We’re breaking tradition, and some members don’t quite understand why.
“But given the circumstances, it’s one that church members understand. We feel blessed that we have the technology to continue to share the Gospel, and we have members who are adapting in ways they probably didn’t know they could.
“We will be excited when we are able to be together in church, but coronavirus is not preventing us from worshiping together.”
Elsewhere in Old Salem, the nonprofit’s officials are trying for ways to stay relevant in the midst of closing over the next month and laying off all 111 of its hourly employees.
The nonprofit group retains its 23 salaried employees. Members of the management staff are taking voluntary pay cuts. The layoffs came two weeks after Old Salem was closed to the public March 13.
“We are fully committed to continuing to find innovative and productive ways to engage and support our community during this difficult time,” Frank Vagnone, Old Salem’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.
In the theme of something old and something new, the nonprofit has launched an initiative to transform its garden plots into “victory gardens” to grow food for those in need, including the food insecure, seniors and families in crisis.
Old Salem is partnering with community groups and food banks to ensure the food grown in its gardens is distributed to the people who need it.
The nonprofit is offering new online educational experiences, such as the Old Salem Exploratorium and History Nerd Alerts!, to connect and engage students, teachers and the public.
For more information about these programs, go to oldsalem.org or follow @OldSalemInc on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
“It is with true regret that we have arrived at these decisions,” Vagnone said.
“But rest assured, the closure and layoffs are temporary. We plan to reopen and hire employees back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.”
Both Snider, and Rev. Ginny Tobiassen, pastor of Home Moravian Church, are aware of the sentiment among some evangelical Christians to heed the call of President Donald Trump in proclaiming “an American resurrection” by “packing the churches” on Easter.
Trump’s urging for church services is part of his controversial strategy for re-opening the U.S. economy, either by piecemeal or in coordination with encouraging closed businesses and their employees back to work.
Snider and Tobiassen said they have not heard one member of their respective churches push back against the decision to live-stream the Easter sunrise service.
“What’s fundamentally different with this crisis is that we could be actively endangering members by having them participate in our services,” Snider said.
“Given what we know and don’t know about the virus, we don’t want to put people in harm’s way.”
“Two weeks ago, it just snowballed,” Tobiassen said of the decision to not gather in God’s Acre.
“We thought, ‘it’s outside, we can stay six feet apart,’ so on the morning of March 11, we all thought we were going to be good to go.
“By that night, with all the large events nationwide cancelling, we knew we had to follow suit.”
Snider said that “as faith leaders, we don’t want to present a false hope to those seeking, needing hope.”
“We don’t have a crystal ball to say when this crisis will be over.
“But, if we stick together in addressing the physical, financial and spiritual challenges through faith, we will get through this.”
Although retail was evolving from brick-and-mortar to online sales rather quickly anyway, the coronavirus may have “just kicked that evolution into a much higher gear overnight,” said Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University School of Business.
“The current need for social distancing is now pushing some consumers who never thought about ‘click and collect’ (curbside) or home delivery before to suddenly see a new major benefit from this altered shopping behavior, i.e., staying healthy,” Beahm said.
“Like every other behavioral change, once consumers make a switch, many will not switch back. If marketing and advertising can’t change people’s behavior, a national emergency certainly can.”
Beahm said there’s opportunity for some brick-and-mortar retailers to keep and earn consumer loyalty by being socially responsible as the coronavirus persists.
“It allows them to temporarily close their in-store shopping option and yet still serve consumers” through those delivery methods, Beahm said.
The key is to act aggressively. Waiting for the coronavirus to pass and return to business as usual is not the answer. Things will never be the same again.
“These retailers won’t just be protecting their own business in the long run,” Beahm said. “They will be offering a valuable social benefit in the short run, i.e., meeting people’s needs for social distancing and keeping the economy running.”
S&P Global Ratings said last week that the $2 trillion federal stimulus package — the biggest in history — won’t stop the recession from occurring.
But it could help shorten a recession in the second quarter if the virus is contained midyear.
“It could reduce the risk of an even deeper recession and support a post-virus rebound in activity as the government’s bridge payments help tide over people and firms until it is safe to start back up again,” S&P said.
“Still, those payments will likely last only a few months, while the longevity of the virus remains uncertain.”
Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University, said the overwhelming surge in unemployment insurance benefit claims the past two weeks has made him cautious about how quickly the economy will recover.
“First, I don’t think it is feasible to think part of the country can recover while others won’t,” Walden said, speaking of a Trump proposal to designate counties nationwide as either low-, medium- or high risk.
“We are too interconnected for that to work well,” Walden said.
“But once we do get back to work, I anticipate consumers will ramp up spending very slowly.
“A large segment of households have been ‘shocked’ by loss of jobs and loss of wealth. They will watch their spending carefully, and many will likely refrain from big-ticket purchases, like homes and vehicles.”
Walden said the longer that social distancing is required, the more individuals will adapt to what he called “tele-ing” in work, education and health care.
“I also think there will be an increased interest in lower-density living (small town, rural areas), which would be good for the urban-rural divide,” Walden said.
Novant Health Inc. said it already has seen a trend toward patients getting more comfortable with telemedicine while stuck in their homes.
“The futuristic vision (of telemedicine) has been slow to materialize,” according to Novant.
“Insurance companies and the government often declined to cover them, many doctors were wary and patients often not quite sure how to take advantage of it.
“Then came the coronavirus. And now that future might be here.”
Novant cited as an example that from early March 2019 to early March 2020, its providers conducted less than 1,000 video visits.
Just between March 20 and Thursday, they did more than 11,000 video visits, “and scores of new appointments or on-demand visits are getting booked by the hour,” said Dr. Hank Capps, chief digital health and engagement officer for Novant.
“In just 48 hours, we advanced five years into the future.”
Stephanie Landry, senior director of digital health and engagement for Novant, said that “patients wanted to stay home and then — fast forward — they were told to stay home.”
“It was a combination of the demand and us realizing we had to adapt to literally meet patients where they are.”
Not in control
A return to normalcy will look drastically different from coronavirus compared with recovering from natural disasters and tragic events.
“There is no easy answer to your questions since the economic conditions are being dictated by public health conditions,” said John Quinterno, a principal with South by North Strategies Ltd., a Chapel Hill research company specializing in economic and social policy.
“Everything really is dependent on the behavior of the actual coronavirus.”
Quinterno said that “unlike a natural disaster like a hurricane, in which a storm hits a localized area, moves on, and results in period of rapid rebuilding, the virus is here.”
“Perhaps it may slow down in warmer weather before returning in the colder months. Or, perhaps it comes under control in one area only to come back after social distancing measures are loosened.
“Or, it could migrate from an affected area to a less affected one, which is the main challenge to the idea of restarting the economy region by region.”
Evolving job market
Another potential lingering impact from the coronavirus crisis is a reshaping of the local and national job markets.
“The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused unprecedented impact to the economy and labor market,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president for global outplacement services firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. of Chicago.
“Millions of people, many of whom previously worked primarily in leisure and hospitality, have found themselves without work.
“However, certain retailers, medical device makers, consumer products manufacturers, and transportation and warehousing facilities are all thriving right now. There are opportunities for those recently laid off,” Challenger said.
Challenger has tracked more than 129,000 hiring announcements from individual companies so far in March, mainly from grocery stores and retailers who are racing to keep up with demand.
There’s also GE and 3M, which need additional shifts and workers to help make much-needed health care products.
“Companies are definitely still hiring right now,” Challenger said. “The methods may be a bit unusual, as companies are prioritizing speed during the hiring process.”
A Challenger survey of 200 employers conducted March 20 through Thursday found that of those that are hiring, 79% are doing so in web and phone interviews. Only 16% reported they were conducting interviews in person.
“Companies that are hiring now are reportedly having workers start immediately, before drug screenings and background checks clear,” Challenger said. “Many are having applicants apply by text message and hiring workers without meeting them in-person.”
The president’s plan to re-open the U.S. economy in a piecemeal fashion in April raises concerns among some economists.
“I think that we need to be careful not to try to get our economies going again until we clearly have infections under control,” said Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University.
“Currently, the infection rate is still going up, so it is too early to talk about reopening the economy. In another couple of weeks, we could re-evaluate a timeline.
“We certainly can try to reopen the economy piece by piece, but we would have to mandate some type of internal travel restrictions for this to be effective, so even if we are reopening, it would be more of a area-wide quarantine rather than a general opening up,” Madjd-Sadjadi said.
As the uncertainty of the coronavirus recedes, and the threat that it could resurface, will play a key role in how the U.S. recovers, Madjd-Sadjadi said.
All it may take to spur more dread is for individuals to listen to an all-clear signal from the White House or the governor’s office, go back into public settings and another wave of coronavirus hits.
At that point, Madjd-Sadjadi, individuals won’t be compelled to stay in their homes, but will volunteer to.
“Many people may decide to hold off on spending until a vaccine is made widely available,” he said.
“If that happens, we could be in for a lengthy and deep recession from which we will take a long time to re-emerge.
“On the other hand, once we do get going, because people will not have spent money, they hopefully will have saved up emergency funds that will allow them to stop living paycheck to payment.”