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Business groups make nationwide push for masks
Business groups and economists are calling on Americans to embrace face masks as the best way to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and accelerate the recovery from the pandemic-driven recession.
While a full rebound is unlikely until the pandemic passes and a vaccine is available, the business community is increasingly touting masks as a low-risk, high-reward way to safely reopen the economy. They're also hoping to avoid more of the in-store clashes between customers and employees who are tasked with enforcing facial covering policies.
Industries with greater levels of direct consumer interaction are among those urging governors to impose statewide mask orders as businesses face angry customers unwilling to cover their faces.
"Wearing a mask is not about fear and it certainly should not reflect one's politics. Wearing a mask is about respecting others and preventing the spread of a deadly disease. This should no longer be up for debate," the Retail Industry Leaders Association wrote in a letter this week to the National Governors Association.
"Retailers commend the governors who have chosen to lead on this issue by requiring citizens in their state to wear a mask, and we respectfully ask that those governors that haven't yet required masks in public to do so immediately."
Other business groups are spending money to get their point across.
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) launched an advertising campaign last week urging Americans to wear face coverings in public spaces. The ad targets residents of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - four manufacturing-heavy swing states where governors in both parties have faced backlash for mask and social distancing orders.
"If we do not implement these commonsense safety measures, it's going to lead to more closures, it's going to lead to more job losses, it's going to lead to economic devastation, the likes of which we have never seen in this country," said NAM chief executive Jay Timmons in a Wednesday interview.
"We can run around on our high horses and declare personal freedom to infect other people, or we can be a little bit inconvenienced and do what is necessary to save our economy and to save the jobs of Americans. It's really that simple."
While NAM's campaign does not specifically target manufacturers or factory workers, Timmons said his group has seen first-hand the cost of failing to take proper measures to curb outbreaks.
"Those who have found an outbreak and had to close their facilities even for a day or two, that slows down production," he explained, forcing some workers to go without pay while raising the cost of a reduced supply of goods.
The prospect of further shutdowns and outbreaks has already curbed the consumer activity that drove the early stages of an economic recovery. Without a course correction, economists warn, the U.S. could end up in a deeper and more damaging recession as hospitals face a surge of COVID-19 patients.
The U.S. surpassed the 3 million mark for confirmed cases Wednesday, far more than any other nation, even when accounting for increased testing capacity. The resurgence has forced several governors to reimpose business closures meant to slow the pandemic as increasingly anxious consumers pull back on nonessential spending and travel.
Growing evidence supporting the ability of face coverings to curb the pandemic has given economists and business groups an alternative and a rallying cry, if not a silver bullet: Wear a mask.
"If you want to keep the economy open and not have large numbers of deaths and illnesses associated with it, we've got to find other options," said James Murphy, chair of economics at the University of Alaska.
Masks have been proven effective in slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus by stopping droplets and aerosols containing it from traveling through the air to other people. At least three dozen studies published this year found that masks can reduce coronavirus transmission by roughly 85 percent.
The costs of widespread mask adoption are considerably less than those of business closures, stay-at-home orders and general fear of contracting the virus, economists say.
"Everything that I've heard and everything that I read is that, on the medical side, face masks are a highly effective way of reducing transmission of the coronavirus." said Murphy, who co-authored an op-ed with several colleagues calling on fellow Alaskans to wear masks.
"On the econ side, the cost of wearing a face mask is trivial," he continued.
Mask-wearing alone cannot stop the spread of COVID-19 or allow the economy to recover to its pre-pandemic strength, according to medical and economic experts. A total recovery will likely rely on a widely available vaccine giving Americans enough protection and confidence to resume assembling in large groups and tight spaces.
Even so, a federal mask mandate could save the U.S. economy roughly 5 percent of the gross domestic product it would lose if the country was forced into another wave of lockdowns, according to an analysis from investment bank Goldman Sachs.
"Our analysis suggests that the economy could benefit significantly from such moves, especially when compared with the alternative of a return to broader lockdowns," wrote Goldman economists Jan Hatzius, Daan Struyven and Isabella Rosenberg.
President Trump has shown little interest in a federal mask order and has consistently downplayed the growing threat of the pandemic despite rising alarm from federal public health officials. The president is also pushing to reopen schools this fall and threatened to pull federal funding from those that don't, a move that would require the unlikely support of House Democrats.
The confusing messages on reopening both schools and businesses are just making things worse, economists say. Progress on each front is unlikely until the virus itself is under control.
"I think most economists would agree that an economic recovery crucially hinges upon dealing with the public health crisis at hand," wrote Sarah Zubairy, an economics professor at Texas A&M University, in an email.
"The course that the virus takes and the accompanying decisions of opening/re-evaluating opening plans creates a great deal of uncertainty which is bad for the economy as a whole," she added.