Business owners, executives and employees make cost-and-benefit decisions all day long.

But the decision everyone in Minnesota and around the country cares most about right now — how and when to let more people work outside their homes — is a risk-assessment challenge even the most seasoned leaders have never encountered.

It’s clear we can’t go back to normal yet, and likely not for months.

There is, after all, no meaningful amount of immunity yet to COVID-19. And scattered throughout all the news coverage so far are reminders of all the things still not known for sure about the disease.

Minnesota remains under a stay-at-home order at least through Sunday, May 3. By far most jobs can still be performed.

Yet it’s frustrating for the owners of closed businesses that compete with others still operating. And there’s a hunger to do things like play golf that might work with social distancing. A petition to open up Minnesota golf courses for appropriately distanced play has gathered more than 45,000 names.

Social distancing through Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order these last few weeks has begun to feel a little like a success. While there has been a more or less steady growth in cases, there hasn’t been the feared massive spike that would overwhelm the health care system.

Yet forecasting is another challenge, and every update comes with a reminder that there are presumed to be many more cases of the disease than have been confirmed by tests.

Just how early we still are was a point made by Neel Kashkari of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, appearing over the weekend on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“I’m focusing on 18 months because we’re looking around the world,” Kashkari said Sunday. “As they relax the economic controls, the virus flares back up again. … So we could have these waves of flare-ups, controls, flare-ups and controls until we actually get a therapy or a vaccine.”

Walz’s effort to slow the virus has drawn plenty of critics, but the state’s business leaders broadly support the governor, said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, an organization of top executives from more than 100 of the largest employers.

“He understands the horrible economic consequence of this,” Weaver said. “But at the same time the only thing that would be worse would be to go back too early and end up with a whole another explosion of the disease.”

The first decision is timing. Weaver said currently the thinking is four weeks after a streak of consecutive days with declining numbers of new cases begins, meaning the peak has passed.

Then it’s who should come back, maybe starting with people who want to return along with others who really need to be at work to be productive.

Employers have to think about how employees get protected at work. Can plastic screens allow for enough safety while workers can still see each other? Can more doors be opened for people to get in and out of the facility without getting too close?

Another critical capability that will make returning to work possible is quick and accessible testing. Workers and customers need confidence that people who are contagious or had been exposed to the virus have been quickly identified and then sent home. Is that the employer’s responsibility or the government’s?

There is a need both for testing people who might have symptoms or reason to think they have been exposed to the virus, and also testing that would confirm that somebody already had COVID-19 and is no longer contagious.

Better ways to trace contacts of anyone who had been in close contact with a person who had tested positive are another need.

In North Dakota, for example, an easy-to-use smartphone app first developed for North Dakota State University football fans on road trips has been turned into the Care19 smartphone tracker. With consent of the user, smartphone locations throughout a day would go into a database to later make it easier to find close contacts with someone who might have been confirmed as positive for the virus.

Problem-solving is underway. Hundreds of comments on how to get people back to work safely have already arrived at the state, Commissioner Steve Grove of the Department of Employment and Economic Development said.

The agency is working with others in government along with business and labor leaders to work out specific recommendations for how to get more businesses and employees working again safely. Some ideas may emerge before the stay-at-home rules are eased.

“This is going to take a while,” Weaver said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen this week.”

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302