Coronavirus pushes U.S. unemployment to Great Depression levels
CONTINUING COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS
By Tim Darnell
April 23, 2020
New jobless numbers released Thursday morning show that 4.4 million Americans filed unemployment claims last week, a decrease more than 800,000 from last week’s 5.2 million claims.
That number is also down from the all-time high of 6.86 million applications filed in late March.
Those figures cap a five-week span in which the Department of Labor saw 26 million Americans file initial unemployment claims. About one in six American workers have now lost their jobs since mid-March, by far the worst string of layoffs on record.
Economists have forecast that the unemployment rate for April could go as high as 20%.
The new data comes as President Donald Trump and several GOP governors attempt to repair the American economic damage caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, and continue to face withering criticism from Democrats.
At the White House, officials believe they’ve entered a new chapter of the pandemic response, moving from crisis mode to sustained mitigation and management.
It began last Thursday with the release of guidelines to governors for how to safely reopen their states. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence celebrated Americans for successfully “flattening the curve” of the epidemic.
A day later, a phalanx of the administration’s top medical officials sought to reassure the nation there were plenty of tests available to safely begin easing restrictions.
Governors have been lifting restrictions each day since then, including aggressive moves announced Wednesday in Montana and Oklahoma. The Montana governor gave schools the green light to open their doors in early May, and Oklahoma will allow salons, barbershops, spas and pet groomers to reopen Friday.
Trump, in his evening news conference, did take issue with Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s bold reopening plans. “I disagree strongly,” he said. “I think it’s too soon.”
The governors’ moves coincided with lingering bleak news around the country. The death toll in Massachusetts eclipsed 2,000 on Wednesday, doubling from just a week earlier. About 16,000 people remained hospitalized across New York.
A meat plant in Iowa that is vital to the nation’s pork supply is the latest slaughterhouse to shut down because of outbreak.
With the economy in for a long, brutal slump, Congress was on the verge of passing an almost $500 billion relief bill to bolster small businesses.
Trump flatly promised Americans that there will no repeat of the national lockdown. “We will not go through what we went through for the last two months,” he said.
Trump predicted earlier this month that the economy would take off like a “rocket ship once we get back to business.” But experts say the recovery will be far slower.
“It’ll be a very gradual process regardless of what a governor says or the president says,” said Dr. Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor of health policy and political analysis. He said the history of lockdowns, particularly the quarantine of more than 25,000 people around Toronto in 2003 to slow the spread of SARS, shows that it will take weeks, even months, for people to develop the confidence to resume normal activity.
Blendon also warned that a predicted second wave of COVID-19 could reverse any gains made in the interim.
It’s not just government, but individual businesses that will need to convince employees and consumers that it’s safe to return, once they decide to reopen.
Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian on Wednesday warned his employees to be prepared for a “choppy, sluggish recovery even after the virus is contained.”
The White House expects businesses “will advertise to the public” about the safety measures they are putting in place when they reopen, said Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council. He said the White House is also considering asking Congress to provide liability protection for employers in case their workers or customers fall sick. “We want small businesses to have some confidence that if they do reopen, they’ll stay open,” Kudlow said.
The outbreak has infected over 2.5 million people and killed about 180,000 around the world, including more than 45,000 in the U.S., according to a tally compiled by Johns Hopkins University from official government figures, though the true numbers are believed to be far higher.