Emphasis on the second word

Plumbers, electricians, landscapers, and politics. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

One minute, you’re sitting at home, reading an article in The Washington Post in which a group of epidemiologists warn that Covid-19 might not go away for a long time even if we find a vaccine, and that humans will just have to figure out how to deal.

The next minute, the toilet is clogged, and you can’t fix it, and you need a plumber.

Let’s talk about one of the plumbers first, in this case Bryan Hammons of St. Petersburg, Florida, who told The Wall Street Journal recently that during the early days of Covid-19, he struggled with whether to stay open.

He had seven employees who needed paychecks. But, he also has a son who is 4 years old and immunocompromised, and so he was afraid of doing anything that might increase the risk of bringing the virus into his home.

In the end, Hammons stayed open. He spent a ton of money (about 7 percent of his gross) on masks, gloves, and sanitizer for his employees. At home after work, he made routine of stripping off his clothes in the garage, sanitizing everything, and heading straight for the shower before greeting his family.

And overall, it seems that it worked. Hammons pays very close attention to his finances — the WSJ quotes him saying profits are down one-half percentage point since March, and that his employees can each do 4.06 jobs per day, instead of 4.1.

At the same time, as far as he or anyone knows, his employees didn’t contribute to the spread of Covid-19.

I think these two things—the plumber and the epidemiologists—are related. Because in a world where Covid-19 doesn’t go away, and we just have to figure it out, the practical things we’re talking about are actually pretty liveable. Examples:

  • Doors that don’t require grasping handles (Automated, I suppose, or foot-activated).

  • Traffic signals that don’t require pressing the “walk” button.

  • Assembly lines and automation in places like meatpacking plants.

  • “Families may have to make diagnostic tests routine ahead of visits to grandparents.”

  • Cubicles might make a return for people who go back to offices, and jobs might have be required to offer paid sick time.

  • “Heading to work while under the weather may no longer be seen as an act of admirable American can-do spirit but instead a threat to co-workers and the bottom line.”

  • Of course, the masks, gloves, and other PPE that people like Hammons and his plumbers are using.

Let me try to tie this together better. Last month, a Harvard economist who served in the Obama administration gave a big presentation over Zoom to a group of professional political operatives — both Democrats and Republicans.

The economy was in the gutter, said the economist, Jason Furman, but he added: “We are about to see the best economic data we’ve seen in the history of this country.”

(Later, he told Politico: “Everyone looked puzzled and thought I had misspoken.”)

His theory is that once the pandemic is under control, there should be a lot of pent-up economic activity, and as a result, the recovery “can be very very fast,” he said. “It will look like a V.”

The Politico article focuses on the politics of all this—how this will play out for President Trump and Vice President Biden in the fall. But let’s focus instead on how we get the V-shape, or at least a Nike swoosh.

A third of Americans show signs of either depression or generalized anxiety order, according to a report, and a big, root cause is the economy. So, the economic result of the public health crisis really is another public health crisis in itself.

Unless you’re in the vaccine researching business, a lot of what you can do to help speed along a recovery has to do with making Covid-19 less relevant. And the way you do that is via these minor and moderate adjustments: masks (as much as I dislike wearing them personally), social distancing, PPE, even cubicles and sick days.

I’m not taking a position here on whether particular states should or shouldn’t be “reopening” right now. I’m certainly not saying I’m unconcerned about the underlying disease. We hit 100,000 deaths in the United States only yesterday.

Instead, I’m simply looking toward the moderate-term future, with a sense of increasing optimism. I’m beginning to think we have a good chance at a “new normal” — with the emphasis on the second word.

It will be different. It might not be how we’d design it if we could. But right about now, any kind of normal sounds pretty darn good.

7 other things worth your time

  • Minneapolis is the site of protests and riots in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man killed Monday after his arrest by city police. All four officers involved were fired. The city asked the governor to call out the National Guard. (KSTP)

  • After Twitter slapped a factchecking label on two of his tweets Tuesday, President Trump is expected to issue an executive order today regulating social media companies. The crux, according to reports, will be to threaten the key “26 words” that currently shield them from certain kinds of liability. (I wrote about the “26 words in February.) (WSJ, $)

  • NASA’s liftoff was postponed to Saturday due to weather. In the meantime, here’s why modern spacesuits look so sleek and — dare we say — futuristic. (BBC)

  • The U.S. Department of Justice ended insider trading investigations into three U.S. senators who sold off stocks following early briefings on the coronavirus. (NBC News)

  • Ford says its police cruisers can now kill the coronavirus by turning the heat in police cars up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. (Fox News)

  • There’s no good, broad data on this, but public companies across the board have been saying that they’ve cut employee salaries, signaling the possibility that high unemployment might only be part of the jobs picture. (Bloomberg)

  • The NFL says it plans to hold its season close to on schedule — and owners say they expect fans to be in the seats. (The Telegraph)

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