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Oct. 20, 2020, 7:48 a.m. EDT

Squabbling politicians lose sight of the urgency of getting America back to work

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By Peter Morici

The political class in Washington has lost sight of the urgent need to get Americans back to work.

Negotiations to fashion another round of stimulus spending have become  arena for political positioning  and too little thought has been given to the structural damage COVID-19 shutdowns and lawlessness in major cities have imposed.

The recovery  has slowed , and the economy will substantially be smaller in February than it would have been had the pandemic and riots not occurred. About 4 million or 5 million jobs will be permanently lost, many more workers will continue furloughs while state unemployment benefits will have expired.

Another stimulus package is needed that would support states to extend unemployment benefits to  99 weeks , as we did during the Great Recession. The plan proposed by  House moderates  in September would have resurrected federal supplements to state benefits at $450 a week and sent $500 billion to the states to replace lost tax revenue but negotiators for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump can’t seem to get to that place.

Even with those, most Americans can’t work on laptops from kitchen tables indefinitely. Only about  37% of jobs can be effectively performed remotely . For many others,  folks are working longer hours to compensate  or have been furloughed,  productivity is lower  and  corporate cultures  and prescient connections among employee teams are eroding.

As  offices and retail establishments  continue to operate at 50% and 75% capacity, respectively, more restaurants and other small businesses fail and more jobs are permanently lost among public-facing, lower-income workers.

Public safety and the security of private property must be restored so that businesses can reopen in cities such as New York, Chicago and Portland. Neutering law enforcement, enabling demonstrators to shut down public thoroughfares from commerce by day and  hoodlums from the extreme left and right to loot and terrorize decent people  by night is not sound public policy.

Business leaders, including executives from Citigroup /zigman2/quotes/207741460/composite C +1.69% , Mastercard /zigman2/quotes/207581792/composite MA +1.08% and Nasdaq, wrote Mayor Bill de Blasio that “ people will be slow to return unless their concerns about security and the livability of our communities are addressed quickly ,” but he quickly deflected their pleas and  has since been cold to offers of cooperation from the business community .

If mayors won’t confine demonstrations to public spaces that don’t impede commerce and adequately support police to ensure security of persons and property, then governors should appoint city administrators to exercise their authority. The whole situation begs federal intervention after the election.

Herd immunity from COVID-19 would be required to permit most workers to ride mass transit and return to offices without spacesuits and draconian measures like  apps on cellphones  that track their every movement, interaction, and trip to the restroom.

Water-cooler conversations that boost innovation won’t happen if workers are monitored like inmates in a penitentiary and fearful that an unauthorized visit to the desk of a friend may trip their interaction limit and send them home.

We should have at least one vaccine for approval by the Food and Drug Administration in the closing months of this year and available for wider distribution early next year, but we will need to accomplish  60% to 70% immunity  to  curb the spread of COVID-19 .

As vaccines are likely to be less than 100% effective and elevators and public transportation requires people to be closer than 6 feet apart to fully reopen tall buildings and cities, all businesses should require workers to be vaccinated or prove immunity with blood tests, and encourage virtually all employees to return to ensure everyone is treated equally. Local governments should impose similar requirements to access to buses, trains and airports.

Mandatory vaccinations can be cast by activists as discriminatory but vaccinations are a public commons issue. We don’t allow homeowners in urban areas to operate septic systems and sink wells, because underground ecosystems lack the capacity to process waste and maintain clean drinking water for dense populations. Similarly, the inside air we breathe cannot be magically purified, even with the best ventilation systems, to permit the careless to roam among us.

Limiting crab harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay ensures maximum opportunities for and all fishermen. Likewise, requiring vaccinations and proof of immunity to return to work and access public transportation are the best way to maximize the number of Americans who may return to work.  

<STRONG>Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.</STRONG>

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