When Tasha Foster-Toney heard that Massachusetts was allowing more indoor recreational businesses to reopen on Monday, she was elated. She could finally reopen her family's roller skating rink in Dorchester, she thought.
“We were so excited, telling everyone,” she said. “It was a breath of fresh air.”
But the very next day, Foster-Toney learned that because of a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Boston didn't qualify as "low risk" enough to allow reopening. Her rink, Chez Vous, would have to stay closed.
"We thought we were in the clear. We were all excited to open up, and then, again, we were set back," she said. "And we don’t even know how long we’re going to continue to stay closed."
Playing the waiting game with the state’s reopening plan just became even more challenging for thousands of Massachusetts residents, experts say, now that President Donald Trump has announced that another federal stimulus check will not be coming until after the election.
"I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business," Trump wrote in a tweet Tuesday, adding that the "stock market is at record levels, jobs and unemployment [are] also coming back in record numbers… the best is yet to come!” Shortly after the tweet, U.S. stock futures began to plunge, with the DOW falling 90 points and the S&P and Nasdaq declining 0.32% and 0.25% respectively.
Thomas Kochan, a professor of work and employment research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said that economic support for those who are out of work and at risk for getting sick is essential "both on a humane standpoint, but also to keep the economy from going further into a tank."
"That's what the stimulus money did in the first place," he said. "It kept this from getting worse and helped some people to sustain their livelihoods."
The economy will not improve until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, Kochan said.
“All the signs are that this economy is going to get worse before it gets better, and politicians in Washington have their head in the sand,” he said. “We have to get this virus under control before we are going to have an economic recovery, and we are a long way from having it under control.”
Though Massachusetts has made some improvements since it became the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country in July, it still nears the top of the list, now coming in sixth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One of the reasons for the high unemployment rate, Kochan said, is because of the state’s more cautious approach.
“We are really experiencing a strategy of saying, let's get this virus under control and let's try to deal with the economic consequences of that, rather than try to lead by opening up and then have a resurgence,” Kochan said. “I respect that approach, but that means we then have to provide relief for the large number of small businesses that have been affected.”
Dr. Shira Doron, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center, says the strategy has never been that simple.
“Our goal was not to eliminate the virus. Our goal was to maintain the capacity to manage the virus,” Doron said. “I think there's some misconception, a little bit of failure of communication from top leadership on this. I actually think that what the Baker administration is doing is entirely consistent with what they've been saying they would do all along.”
Despite a recent uptick in hospitalized coronavirus patients in Massachusetts, up 41 percent since a late August low, Baker is moving forward with the state’s reopening plan. This makes sense, Doron says.
“There's so much more to public health than this virus,” she said. “There are other aspects, like financial health and mental health, that are really important parts of public health, as well. People have to get back to work in order to afford food.”
If people cannot afford food, they won’t spend money at the grocery store or local restaurants. If they cannot afford rent, or health insurance, or any expenses including necessities, the economy suffers as a consequence, Kochan says. “That's the nature of a modern economy. We're very interconnected,” he said. “It's not just providing support for a certain set of individuals. It's supporting local economies, local businesses and families in need.”
Labor economist and Harvard Professor Richard Freeman said that even with another stimulus payment, the economy would still be primed for another great recession without a long-term financial bailout plan.
“The first stimulus gave us a kick, but it was like a Band-Aid for somebody who's been shot,” Freeman said. “This plan is also not a long-term plan, it’s another Band-Aid. But you have to keep the patient alive with the bandages until you get them to the hospital, to long-term care.”
Massachusetts also relies heavily on industries like tourism, which generates an annual $1.6 billion in state and local taxes, according to the state’s Office of Travel and Tourism, and the economic impact of college students, who normally make up 20% of the state’s population. Without these out-of-state groups, Freeman points out, the Massachusetts economy would suffer even more. This is why it’s in the interest of state officials to try to eliminate the virus as much as possible, and not just from a humane standpoint.
“If we were virus-filled, there could be no tourists coming for a long, long time,” Freeman said.
If the economy suffers, unemployment numbers will be slow to return to normal, which means less opportunity for college students graduating in the state, Freeman said.
“You have to create jobs to handle the college graduates, the high school graduates coming out, people who don't have any serious work experience,” he said. “And those jobs are not created in an economy that's moving very, very slowly.”