There Is No Easy Road to Reopening Virginia

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) took some heat for not being as aggressive as his counterparts across the Potomac in his response to the coronavirus outbreak. Northam’s announcement Monday about reopening the commonwealth for business is likely to stoke the coals of outrage once again — from all sides.

They should save their outrage. They’ll need that emotional energy, and a lot more, for what is likely to be a very long, very difficult recovery process.

Northam extended the shutdown of so-called nonessential businesses until the wee hours of May 15. On that day, and only if the data are all pointing (mostly) in the right direction, the restrictions will begin to ease. Virginia will join its neighbors West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky in making the move from almost complete stop to slow forward roll.

Those who believe opening the doors of commerce even a tad will jeopardize lives and invite even greater problems will chastise Northam for moving much too fast.

Those who have chafed at the comparatively mild restrictions applied in Virginia since late March will say any reopening plan won’t go far enough and will all but guarantee greater economic damage.

That will put Northam in the middle — neither reckless nor timid. And that’s a good place for him and Virginia to be.

It will also be a bow to reality: Lifting the restrictions Northam imposed in March was always inevitable. The question has been when to start and how to do so.

We’ll have firm answers to both in a couple of days.

But a word of caution for those who are demanding a full and rapid reopening: Just because the restrictions are eased, plenty of limitations will remain — perhaps well into the summer.

Expecting life and business to immediately return to the pre-shutdown days is wishful thinking.

If anything, the challenges facing a reopened Virginia are enormous. As Richmond Federal Reserve Bank President Tom Barkin wrote, Virginia and the nation will have to contend with what is likely to be a smaller, less productive economy.

Barkin sees the need for extensive job retraining, particularly for “the large number of low-end service workers displaced by this crisis.”

He also believes there could be more widespread adoption of what he calls “new productivity levers,” such as “retail self-checkout, food delivery, telehealth and … online education … as surely online shopping will as well.”

These won’t come without their own costs. Barkin thinks “some government incentive” to adopt these and other tools will be necessary “to restore confidence in an uncertain environment.”

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