In April, as the coronavirus pandemic raged across the country and lockdowns shuttered businesses, the White House assembled a reopening task force to advise on how to safely reopen the country and stabilize the economy.
"I'm going to surround myself with the greatest minds," President Donald Trump said at a news conference announcing the formation of the Opening Up America Again industry group, which included corporate giants from Amazon to General Motors to Merck. "I'm going to have to make a decision. It's the biggest decision I've ever had to make," he added.
Six months later, the panel has met only once, by phone.
“This was a sham, not a task force,” said Tim Schlittner, a spokesperson for the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor union, which participated in the call. “We weren't told we were being appointed. We weren't called on in the only meeting that happened. And we haven't heard from them since."
Some executives only became aware that they were part of the task force a few hours before receiving a request to join a phone conference with the White House. David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, said he could not participate, since the timing clashed with his company's quarterly earnings call.
The time limit on the phone conference left room for only executives from some of the country's biggest companies to share their suggestions, which raised concerns that Trump did not prioritize the perspective of smaller players, according to executives who took part in the call, who requested that NBC News not use their names.
Less than 24 hours after that call — and without the knowledge of some key participants — the White House released a set of guidelines for easing lockdown restrictions. The series of recommended reopening phases put the onus on governors and local officials to “liberate” their economies from strict social distancing requirements, as Trump tweeted the following day.
The fast burn of the reopening task force marked the beginning of Trump’s varied approach to public health policy. In his race to reboot the economy, he has undermined science, mocked the use of masks and blamed a “fake news media conspiracy” for the country’s record virus cases, while sowing public distrust of state officials for early lockdowns to stem infections.
The consequences of such a divisive tack not only stoke chaos on the ground but have dramatic economic outcomes, said James Stock, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
“The most important economic policy is a public health policy to suppress the virus,” Stock said. “That doesn't mean lockdowns, but what we do need is everything else — the mask, the workplace safety and responsibility for caring for each other and caring for ourselves.”
The U.S. economy is on track to shrink by 4.3 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. While that is about the same rate as the global economy, it puts the U.S. behind countries including South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and China, which will see at least 1.9 percent in economic growth. Meanwhile, the U.S. is expected to take on debt levels it hasn’t seen since World War II. The country’s federal debt increased by $5.6 trillion, which economists believe is manageable now with low interest rates. But such a high debt level could slow down economic growth in the future.
A growing body of economic studies has shown that a comprehensive public health response to the pandemic could prevent the economy from falling into a deeper hole. With a current unemployment rate of 7.9 percent, 40million people still face eviction,bankruptcies are at record levels, and the number of Americans living in poverty has grown by 8 million since May.
While these metrics demonstrate the impact of the pandemic, it is difficult to measure the specific economic cost of a cogent public health response. But interventions that target individual behaviors, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, are more effective at reducing infections at lower economic cost than business shutdowns, a recent University of Pennsylvania Wharton study found.
School closures caused less job loss than business closures, but more than stay-at-home orders, the study showed. A June report from investment bank Goldman Sachs found that a national mask mandate instead of economic lockdowns could increase the number of people who wear face coverings by 15 percentage points and save the U.S. from a 5 percent hit to economic growth.
“Even in the absence of a national mandate, state and local authorities might well broaden mandates in ways that ultimately mimic the impact of a national mandate," Jan Hatzius, Goldman Sachs' chief economist, wrote in the report. "Either way, our analysis suggests that the economy could benefit significantly from such moves, especially when compared with the alternative of a return to broader lockdowns."
As the country battles record infection rates and a third peak in infections, economists and health experts, including Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, have advocated for a national mask mandate to curb infections and further economic turmoil.
A national adoption of public health measures including social distancing, masks, limits on group gatherings, national testing and enhancing protections for the elderly, could mean millions of dollars saved from being lost to the pandemic, Stock said.
“There seems to be a misconception in the White House to insist that the economy is open and then people will figure they can go back,” Stock said. “But that’s not how it works. People aren't going to go out if they are feeling scared. The only way to make sure people feel safe is to make sure the virus is suppressed.”
With Election Day less than a week away and a fresh round of coronavirus relief aid off the table for now, the economy remains in limbo — but uppermost on the minds of voters.
Jen Tatman, an unemployed medical worker in Arcadia, California, has depended on unemployment benefits to support herself and her eight-year old son since the spring. She said it has been "probably the worst time in my life."
“I definitely think if the president in office was taking science seriously, he would have done many things differently,” she said. “I think he is making a mockery of things instead of bringing people together.”
Rose Rubino, 51, an accountant in Hazlett, New Jersey, said she has already mailed her ballot for Trump. She was offered an accounting job in April that was rescinded because of the pandemic, leaving her on unemployment to make ends meet.
“I feel the economy was doing well before the pandemic hit and I don’t feel it was [Trump's] fault and he did everything he could,” she said.
Despite the elevated number of coronavirus cases, Trump said Tuesday the U.S. is “rounding the turn” on the pandemic.
White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said the Opening Up America Again industry group is "an ongoing dialogue."
"As the president has said, the cure cannot be worse than the disease. The United States will not be shut down again," Deere said.
But with the administration still struggling to control the pandemic, a fast economic rebound is a pipe dream, Mark Zandi, an economist with Moody's Analytics, said.
"Whether you shut businesses down or not, you still have a recession and a significant hit to the economy," he said. "That goes to the botched response to the pandemic, which has resulted in this economy that is still struggling to get back on track."