Amid all the uncertainty of the COVID crisis, there has been one constant: You cannot help the economy without first controlling the virus.

You can see it with your bare eyes. Some states, like Maine, have been guided by that fact, and find themselves doing better in both economic activity and disease suppression. Others, like Florida and Texas, have largely ignored it and are worse off than ever.

But if that’s not enough, the numbers back it up.

Economic activity is sluggish nationwide. However, it’s not because of lockdowns and government interference, but consumer reaction to the novel coronavirus itself.

Activity in Maine is down in some sectors but up in others. Overall, consumer spending here is higher than the national average — because of all the hard work done by Mainers over the last several months, people feel comparatively safe going out and spending money.

The same is true for New England as a whole. Consumers across the region are outspending their counterparts in Texas, Florida, Arizona and other states that restarted economic activity before the virus was under control and are now facing outbreaks and another round of business closures.

Real-time data shows the same in Europe, where strict measures were put in place to suppress the virus. Now retail stores, movie theaters and amusement parks are all doing business closer to pre-pandemic levels.

Speaking on Aug. 12, Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, pointed to those dynamics, hammering home the fact that lifting restrictions too early hurt both public health and the businesses most harmed by the shutdowns.

“As long as the virus poses significant threats to public health, a full economic recovery will be very difficult as individuals, often voluntarily, avoid activities that place their health at risk,” he said.

“Indeed, the trajectory of the economic recovery will be determined more by the path of the virus than by the path of policymaking.”

Translation: People will not go out and spend like before until they feel it’s safe to do so. And they won’t feel safe unless elected officials make the hard decisions to take the steps we know suppress the virus — or until there’s a safe, effective and widely deployed vaccine.

It’s unclear when that will be. While there is a lot of optimism surrounding the development of a vaccine, experts warn that there are no certainties — a vaccine could be a year or more away.

We cannot spend that time arguing over whether it’s worth lifting restrictions on business activity when the science shows it puts public health at risk. Our experience shows clearly it’s not.

You can only lift restrictions when public health indicators say you can. Otherwise, you’ll end up worse off than before.

Everyone needs to take that lesson to heart. You cannot help the economy without first controlling the virus.


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