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Americans Limit Time Spent In Public Amid Coronavirus Concerns


Here's the advice that medical experts are giving to slow down the spread of the coronavirus - if you can, stay home. That means empty cubicles, empty sports arenas, empty schools - even Disneyland is closed. Now, these things are good for public health, but they are bad for the economy. Yesterday, the Dow and the S&P 500 experienced their greatest single-day drop since the 1987 crash that we call Black Monday.

NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is on the line. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Happy Friday the 13, Noel.

KING: Indeed. So where are the markets today?

HORSLEY: Well, the markets in Asia were down overnight, but we have seen an uptick in European markets. And the futures markets in this country are pointing to some increase in the stock market on Wall Street today. So investors perhaps have a chance to regain some of their big losses from yesterday when the Dow dropped nearly 10% and the other major indexes dropped more than 9%.

KING: Let's move for a second from Wall Street to Main Street because we've seen surveys over the past couple of years in which millions of Americans say that they are living paycheck to paycheck. They are right on the line. This could have really serious consequences for a lot of people in this country.

HORSLEY: Absolutely. I mean, yesterday, we had Major League Baseball announcing that it's suspending its season; other sporting leagues have done the same. The ballplayers are probably going to be OK. But the ballpark vendors, they're not going to be making any money. The waitress at the restaurant near the ballpark, she's not getting any tips. Maybe that makes it hard for her to pay her auto mechanic, and so it goes down the line. Elsewhere on the program today, we heard from a hotel worker who had his hours slashed this week because people aren't traveling as much as they would be ordinarily. We're going to see a lot more of that.

And as you say, there is a large percentage of Americans who have little or no savings to fall back on when the paychecks suddenly stop. What's more here, it's not just a psychological shock where policymakers can encourage people to, hey, cheer up and go out and go shopping. The very things that are weighing on the economy are the things that the public health authorities tell us we need to do in order to get a handle on this pandemic.

KING: So what are policymakers doing, Scott, to mitigate some of this?

HORSLEY: Well, part of the slide in the stock market yesterday I think resulted from investors' fear that policymakers really didn't have a handle on the situation. And maybe we'll see some improvement in that. The House Democrats have been negotiating through the night with representatives of the Trump administration to try to come up with a package that would help to cushion the economic blow here. And there's a possibility that could be voted on in the House as early as today. That package includes, for example, additional food aid for people who might be having trouble buying groceries, aid to states for what are expected to be higher costs for Medicaid and unemployment.

Yesterday, the Labor Department issued new guidance to states saying people who have been adversely affected by the coronavirus who either can't work because of a quarantine or who are sick themselves or perhaps caring for a loved one who's sick, those folks should be eligible for unemployment benefits. So these are some of the measures that are being taken to try to cushion the blow. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also talking about expanding testing for coronavirus. There's some thought that mass testing is what it will take to restore confidence so people feel safe enough to go back to the workplace, back to the shopping mall.

KING: Possibly some good news on the way. NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.