As America’s economic reopening fitfully proceeds, it is becoming clear that it will require a precious resource often in short supply: trust. Americans are about to see a new referendum on how strong is the glue that holds them together.
Should you show up again for work? It depends how much you trust the pronouncements of your employer that the work space will be safe. Should you send your children back to school? That depends on how much you trust the school system. Should you go to that block party? It depends on much you trust your neighbors about where they’ve been and whom they’ve seen.
The problem is that such trust can never be absolute. No matter how much parents like the local schools, for example, or would trust them on other issues, child-to-child transmission of COVID-19 still may occur. The risk of infection cannot be eliminated, and schools have never been world-class performers in the monitoring and control of disease.
I find that when I order takeout, I am patronizing the two local restaurants whose proprietors I know best. Yes I like their food, but I also have been impressed by their seriousness and dedication of purpose, and I trust they will undertake the necessary safety precautions. One of those restaurants serves cuisine from the Wuhan area of China, and the virus is not something they take lightly.
My preferences here might not be completely rational. But I expect many people will feel the same way: They will want to buy from people they know and respect.
The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic brought serious economic damage for thinly capitalized face-to-face retailers, such as small family-owned restaurants. But many of those same institutions will lead the recovery — that is, if they have built up trust among their patrons. If they ask me to sit outside to eat my meal, I will trust that their kitchen procedures are “clean enough,” because I believe that the boss is watching.
It is also worth asking whom I do not trust. When it comes to providing a fully clean and safe store, I do not trust most of the big-box retailers. I trust them just fine in ordinary times, but no single manager can oversee the entire cleaning and disinfectant operation. And can they monitor COVID-19 in the air? If they tell me that “all possible precautions have been taken,” I might believe their words, but I won’t believe that is enough.
I will also remain skeptical of the airlines. Like most American travelers, I’ve experienced lost bags, canceled flights and inexplicable delays. I am not a complainer by nature, yet still I would classify my experience in 44 years of flying as “OK to good.” I’m not afraid of a plane crash, but when it comes to risking COVID-19 exposure, I’m going to wait a bit longer.
Not only must customers trust businesses, but businesses must also trust customers — and customers will have to trust one another. At a bare minimum, businesses have to trust their customers not to show up with visible symptoms of COVID-19, as well as trust that they haven’t engaged in high-risk activities more generally. Right now many or possibly most carriers are asymptomatic, yet most businesses do not have the capacity to test customers for COVID-19, which they would want to do if the tests were reliable, which they aren’t.
I’ve found that customers are much better and more tightly masked at my local organic supermarket, which was never so crowded anyway. The one quick inside shopping trip I did was to that venue, as much a mark of trust in the customers as in the owners.
The National Basketball Association is wondering whether it can resurrect its playoffs at a dedicated location with television coverage but no audience in the stands. So far the teams are hesitant, in part because they are afraid of public resentment if the league’s millionaire players have access to COVID-19 tests while the general public does not.
The reality is that if the NBA announced it was buying up a lot of tests, it would boost the supply of tests. That could provide testing with valuable positive publicity, with the NBA serving as a role model for what other businesses might do. Yet the NBA does not yet trust its fans to see things in such a positive light, and so reopening is delayed. There might be some danger to playoffs games without fans, but surely less than in, say, collegiate or professional football, where injuries and concussions are built into the very nature of the competition.
Americans are about to find out just how trusting a nation this is. We might not like everything we learn.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.