Businesses Are Reopening, But Customers May Not Be Ready To Go Back

May 18, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 9:29 am

Marshall Gilmore finally got what he'd been waiting for this month when the state of Mississippi allowed him to offer table service again at his restaurant, the Harvest Grill in Meridian.

Still, many of his tables sit empty, even at limited capacity, and he makes most of his money offering curbside food pickup.

"People are just a little apprehensive about getting out in public. This was a once-in-a-lifetime scare that we all just went through. So everyone's a little scared," Gilmore says.

States are slowly beginning to take steps to restart their economies, allowing retail stores, parks and even hair salons to reopen, usually under tightly controlled conditions. But analysts say that businesses and their customers, through their actions, will decide when the economy opens up again.

In an April news conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to get his state "back on its feet by using an approach that is safe, smart and step by step."

But officials still need to convince people it's safe to go out again.

"If they don't feel safe, they're not going to go to a restaurant, they're not going to go out, they're not going to go to retail," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine told MSNBC on May 11.

The U.S. economy has undergone a massive slowdown over the past two months, with businesses closing their doors and laying off some 36 million workers. Schools, churches and theaters have shut down en masse.

Much of this began to happen in late February, well before most governors had issued lockdown orders, because people became afraid to go out.

"The fear itself might prevent them from actually going to work, or they might be forced either to stay at home because they are sick or because they have to attend [to] someone in their families or households who is sick," says Felipe Lozano Rojas, an instructor at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Lozano Rojas has studied the relationship between a state's lockdown orders and how well its economy has fared. In a recent paper, he said there's little evidence that states with more aggressive social distancing guidelines have seen more layoffs.

"It suggests that maybe reducing these social distancing requirements and reopening schools and allowing businesses to go back may not have as big of an effect in restarting the economies at an individual state as you might have otherwise thought," adds his co-author, Bruce Weinberg, an economics professor at Ohio State University.

In other words, governors didn't shut down their states' economies all by themselves, and they can't reopen them alone either.

That's been borne out in states that have begun easing social distancing guidelines. News reports have shown pictures of crowded bars in Wisconsin and busy beaches in Florida, but businesses that have reopened say customers have been slow to return, at least so far.

For example, some states have begun allowing shopping malls and retail stores to reopen this month; traffic so far has been light, says Neil Saunders, who follows the retail industry for the firm GlobalData.

"I think some mall owners and retailers have been taken by surprise as to how slow this build is," Saunders says. "Consumers are very concerned about coming out. And some are just not confident to go out to locations and shop like they used to."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep with an important clarification. We've pointed out that the president cannot really open up the economy. Governors decide when to lift stay at home orders. Here's the clarification. Even governors cannot make a business reopen or make people leave home. You decide. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Marshall Gilmore has spent a lot of sleepless nights lately wondering what would happen to his restaurant, the Harvest Grill in Meridian, Miss. Then this month, he got what he'd been waiting for. The state let him reopen, at least partially. There were a lot of rules to comply with.

MARSHALL GILMORE: We had to get rid of half tables, chairs. Our staff is all required to wear a face mask. You're required to have hand sanitizer at your entrances, exits and at the host station.

ZARROLI: But Gilmore says even operating at 50% capacity, he has plenty of empty tables. In fact, he still makes more money on curbside food pickup than he does on table service.

GILMORE: People are just a little apprehensive about getting out in public. This was a once-in-a-lifetime-scare scare that we all just went through. So everybody's a little scared.

ZARROLI: And that fear has had a profound effect on the economy. The slowdown that began in March has been massive and unprecedented. Companies canceled conferences and shut their offices down. Professional sports teams stopped playing. Even churches closed their doors. And this began to happen even before states were issuing lockdown orders. Felipe Lozano-Rojas of Indiana University says people just chose not to go out.

FELIPE LOZANO-ROJAS: The fear itself might prevent them from actually going to work. Or they might be forced either to stay at home because they are sick or because they have to attend somebody in their families or households who is sick.

ZARROLI: In other words, governors didn't shut down the economy all by themselves. And it's not clear they can open it back up again.

LOZANO-ROJAS: I'm very curious to what extent they're going to manage to actually achieve a full opening.

ZARROLI: States that have reopened their economies have stressed how important it is to do it in a careful and cautious way. Here's Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: We will get Florida back on its feet by using an approach that is safe, smart and step by step.

ZARROLI: But that hasn't eased people's fears about going out again. Despite news reports about crowded Florida beaches and Wisconsin bars, a lot more people are staying home. Florida recently began letting malls and retail stores reopen. Neil Saunders tracks the retail industry for the firm GlobalData. He says so far at least, not a lot of customers have been showing up to shop.

NEIL SAUNDERS: And I think some mall owners and retailers have been taken by surprise as to how slow this build is. Consumers are very concerned about coming out. And some are just not confident to go out to locations and shop like they used to.

ZARROLI: Meanwhile, large companies aren't taking their cues from the government about when to reopen. Google and Facebook say most of their employees will work remotely until next year. Nationwide Insurance says it will close many of its office sites permanently. All this means governors have a lot less control over the economy than you might think. Ohio's Republican governor, Mike DeWine, said as much in a recent interview with MSNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE DEWINE: People aren't - feel safe. If they don't feel safe, they're not going to go to a restaurant. They're not going to go out. They're not going to go to retail.

ZARROLI: Ohio officials are drawing up plans to reopen their economy. But DeWine says these plans won't amount to much unless people are convinced it's safe to go out again. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THURSTON MOORE SONG, "SPEAK TO THE WILD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.