University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Dean Katherine Baicker joins Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith to discuss the safest and most vulnerable places to visit, as some states begin easing lockdown restrictions.
SEANA SMITH: Well, as states begin to reopen, many Americans are wondering if it's safe to visit a restaurant or should they go to the gym. Well, this highlights the ugly dilemma facing the country. Should we keep the economy closed or open it up and risk that resurgence of COVID-19?
So our next guest says that there's actually another option potentially on the table. So for that, I want to bring in Dean Katherine Baicker from University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. And Dean Baker, thanks so much for taking the time this afternoon. You had a very interesting op-ed in "The New York Times" recently talking about this trade-off facing our country. I guess my first question to you is, what is the best way to approach mitigating the spread while also trying to curb the economic hardship that's being felt across the nation?
KATHERINE BAICKER: Well, I think the way you set it up is really perfect. There is a dilemma policymakers are facing. If they open up too quickly, they risk undoing all of the good that social isolation has done and spreading the disease. But if they don't open up quickly enough, there won't be an economy left once you try to turn the lights back on.
What we wanted to do was figure out, are there businesses that could start to open safely and generate a lot of economic gain for very little health risk? So we looked at how much transmission risk there was in different businesses. And we found there was a huge amount of variation. Some places pose much more risk than others. So that gives policymakers the opportunity to start opening businesses that produce the most economic benefit with the least health risk first.
SEANA SMITH: Yeah. And Dean Baicker, I wanted to drill down into that, because it's interesting just in terms of what you found and how long people spend time in certain stores, because it kind of goes against maybe some of the reopening phases that are being implemented across the country now.
KATHERINE BAICKER: There are a number of different dimensions that affect the risk of transmission. There's how many people are packed into how small a space. There is how much time do they spend there. There's the issue of whether they're touching common surfaces or interacting physically between customers and employees. And we found that there was a lot of variation between industries, but also a lot of variation within industries.
So you might think that a fast food restaurant is going to be really dangerous because so many people come through. But they tend to come through all day and not stay very long. So there isn't a lot of crowding.
Whereas something like an ice cream store, people come to a much smaller space in a much more concentrated period of time, maybe on a hot weekend afternoon, or right after dinner. So those tend to be much more crowded for the same number of people visiting. You want to take all of that into account about thinking what's riskiest.
SEANA SMITH: Dean, how do we take all of that into account? Because when you talk about the tremendous variation that we could even see within the sector, I think the two restaurants that you used in your op-ed, you were talking about Denny's and The Original Pancake House. And you were saying it's very similar, but when you drill down into it, the virus can be spread in dramatically different ways when you take into account how often customers or I guess the time that they decide to visit the restaurant. So how do we navigate these types of challenges when we're trying to figure out the best possible policies to put forward?
KATHERINE BAICKER: Well, the data that we looked at were before the COVID crisis hit so we could see patterns of business as usual as a baseline. Of course, over the last couple of months, there's been very little traffic, if any, at most of these venues.
So as we start to reopen, people can have in mind looking for crowding, looking for density, looking for cleanliness of surfaces. But businesses also have the opportunity to change the way they do business as usual to the new reality. We're already seeing that with things like curbside pickup or delivery only for restaurants. Some grocery stores are metering people in so there aren't too many people there at the same time.
I think businesses have the opportunity to lower the risk by lowering the density of people who are there and by reducing the touching of common surfaces and other mechanisms for transmission. So we hope that this is a tool, both for thinking about what things are lowest risk to reopen, but also for thinking about how to make everything lower risk.
SEANA SMITH: Real quick, do you think that there's any-- since this is being handed off to the states and states are implementing their own policies and their own guidelines? Are there any states or local governments that you think are doing it right or taking the most common sense, some of the factors that you laid out, into consideration when they are putting forth their guidelines?
KATHERINE BAICKER: There are lots of city and state government officials who are really interested in getting the data that they need to make these more nuanced decisions. And thinking about phased reopening of businesses, I think, is the right approach. And this data can help policymakers decide which things should be in which phase, thinking about monitoring in real time how much density there is, who is showing up in what venue.
One of the other risk factors we hadn't talked about yet is how far people travel to come to a given venue. It may be that grocery stores can be kind of crowded, but everybody's coming from a local area. And they would have crossed paths already. Whereas opening a mall, people come from a much farther area, and there's greater risk of disease spread.
Looking by geography makes a lot of sense in gauging both the economic benefit of restarting particular industries, but also the health conditions on the ground. The risks depend on the prevalence of the disease in the area. Health system capacity, whether there are ICU beds, personal protective equipment, personnel who can help with health crises. All of those things should factor into local decision making.
SEANA SMITH: All right. Dean Katherine Baicker of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, thanks so much for taking the time today.
KATHERINE BAICKER: Thank you.