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Looking forward: How can we safely reopen the economy?

Deciding how and when it’s safe for people to return to work, school, and public life is a complex topic

Berkeley Conversations
A panel of UC Berkeley experts discussed Friday the best ways to safely reopen the economy. (UC Berkeley video)

Returning to some version of normal will require customized plans that may vary by locale, depending on the intensity of COVID-19 infections. Even so, the economy can’t be safely reopened without strong data, unified decision-making frameworks and some policies that span the country.

That was the consensus of experts from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and School of Public Health who took part in a virtual discussion on reopening the economy Friday as part of the Berkeley Conversations COVID-19 series.

“One size does need to fit all for at least large swaths of the population,” said associate professor Jonathan Kolstad, a health economist with joint appointments at Berkeley Haas and in the Department of Economics. “Everyone’s behavior affects everyone else. (Reopening) in the absence of any sort of coordination is an incredibly costly strategy.”

According to Maya Petersen, associate professor and co-chair of the Graduate Group in Biostatistics at the School of Public Health, fragmentation hurts effective epidemic response.

“Ideally, what happens is you have a unified decision-making framework, you have unified communication, you have clear policies that span the country,” Petersen said. “And within those, you have the ability to use your data locally to meaningfully fine-tune your epidemic response.”

If there was one steady drumbeat throughout Friday’s conversation, it was data, data, data — which panelists agreed are a prerequisite for reopening, and which must be used in an integrated way to guide testing and identify outbreaks. Other key themes were putting proper systems into place, as well as restoring trust.

To do that, leaders need to be realistic, consistent and deliberate, said Jennifer Chatman, professor of management and associate dean of learning strategies at Berkeley Haas. “The mental calculus of leadership is even more vital now because you need to anticipate how people are going to react to what you say and what you do,” Chatman said.

Professor David Levine, a labor economist at Berkeley Haas, said the good news is that all the tools of good management apply.

“For generations, we’ve been figuring out how to improve product quality, how to make food safer or how to avoid environmental disasters. And the answer is good management,” he said. “There are lots of management tools around training, incentives, monitoring and continuous improvement that we know how to use for lots of old threats. Coronavirus is a new threat but the tools to fight it are the same tools.”

One key thing organizations must do is make it easy for employees to be safe. For example, it’s not enough to just tell people to wash hands: Managers must give people breaks to wash their hands. All states should require every workplace to complete an assessment to look for risks, as California does. Employees should have the authority to stop production if they see a health problem — right now, in most states, they don’t.

“Managers need to make clear that this is how you become a hero, and not a former employee,” Levine said.

People need to remember, however, that our goal as a society is not to get to zero transmissions, Petersen said. Until we have a vaccine, the goal is maximum containment and understanding risks.

“We all navigate risks in our lives every day. Thinking in terms of good public health principles, what you need to do is communicate risks clearly to people, have the data available to be able to quantify risks accurately, and you need to have people’s trust so when you say, ‘this is the best estimate of your current risk and this is what you need to do to mitigate it,’ people believe it,” she said.

This event was sponsored by the Haas School of Business as part of Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19. This series of live, online events feature faculty experts from across the UC Berkeley campus who are sharing what they know, and what they are learning, about the pandemic. All conversations are recorded and available for viewing at any time on the Berkeley Conversations website.