Plan Now for COVID-19 De-Mobilization

by James A. Bacon

Everyone wants to put people back to work as soon as the COVID-19 virus recedes, whether that’s month or two or three from now. In video discussion above with Dr. Alan Dow, Richmond creativity consultant Scott Wayne (at right) argues that we need to begin thinking now about how to do that. The process could be trickier than we realize.

Essentially, the question is this: Do we let some people re-enter the workforce earlier than others?

It’s fine to let young, healthy people back in the workplace, but how about older workers or those who have medical conditions that might put them at risk? Would delaying the return of older workers constitute a form of age discrimination? What obligation do employees have to disclose private health information about medical conditions that put them at greater risk? Employers must balance competing priorities of public health vs. individual rights.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John H. Cochrane discusses the same issues. “Governors must … use this time to work with businesses on a plan for reopening the economy in a way that mitigates health risks.”

Some excerpts from Cochrane’s column:

A blanket lockdown can’t go on. Keeping every business closed and every workers at home until a vaccine is available won’t work. Replacing the private economy with borrowed federal money for months on end won’t work. …

Safety measures … need to be more tailored than a total shutdown of “nonessential” companies. Business were doing a good job already: announcing sanitation, social distancing and other protocols to keep operations safe and reassure customers. …

State and local government need to figure out a satisfactory combination of personal distance, self-isolation, frequent testing, stricter rules for those who who must interact with customers, cleaning protocols and so on. Each industry will likely be different. ….

All of which leads up to this point, addressed by Wayne and Dow in the video:

Government officials need to work with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. Isolate old people and those with pre-existing health conditions, who are much more likely to end up needing emergency care, while letting the young and healthy get back to work, carefully.

It would be helpful if someone in the Northam administration, or perhaps the Attorney General’s office, began exploring the implications under state and federal law of allowing the young and health to return to work earlier than older and medically compromised workers.