(Bloomberg) — Customers keep popping into the New York City dry-cleaning shop where Rolando Matute works to say how happy they are to see it open again. He’s not so sure.
“I don’t really feel safe,” he said on Tuesday, his third day back at MCMB Cleaners in Harlem. “I’m dealing with a lot of clothes, a lot of credit cards and a lot of customers, but I feel like I have to because I have a family. Someone has to work.”
Americans locked at home for more than two months seem resigned to participating in a coronavirus experiment that begins in earnest this Memorial Day weekend, with all 50 states open at least in part. People are filling resorts, casting aside masks at the mall and weighing the dangers of a meal out. That freedom could revive an economy that has seen almost 39 million people file for unemployment over the past nine weeks, more than during the whole of the Great Recession.
However, many workers are anxious about returning during a pandemic in which cases have leveled off in many areas, but haven’t dropped as dramatically as many health experts would have liked.
Matute has moved into his basement in the Bronx out of fear of bringing the virus home to his wife, two daughters and asthmatic mother. His wife leaves his dinner on the back patio every night, alongside the food bowls for their two cats. His 3-year-old waves as he retrieves it.
“I’m like a cat, eating dinner on the patio,” said Matute, 36. “I don’t even go into the house anymore.”
Almost 94,000 Americans have already died from Covid-19 and another 50,000 might by August — if states don’t deviate from their announced plans to ease social distancing, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Without a coherent national strategy, Americans are confronting that grim prospect in different ways. People in hard-hit New York are cautiously stepping out and testing new social norms. In freewheeling Florida, hotel bookings in the Gulf Coast playground of Destin were down only 22% in the week ended May 16 compared with the same week last year, according to hospitality researcher STR. In early April, they were down 84%.
Fresh flare-ups of disease “will test our social fabric and bring these differences into relief,” said Ayman Fanous, chair of psychiatry at Brooklyn’s SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University. “Conflict is inevitable as people are just going to reach breaking point.”
Americans’ division over how to cope with the virus was starkly sketched this week in interviews around the nation:
If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t even think about entering J’s Breakfast Club in Gary, Indiana. Joslyn Kelly is a stickler for Covid-19 safety rules.
Kelly ended takeout service at her soul-food restaurant early in the lock-down after customers failed to follow social-distancing measures. She lost a month of revenue before she resumed May 1, and business has been brisk enough that she put up a sign asking customers to be patient.
Kelly admits only a limited number of people, and only if they’re wearing a mask. Those who aren’t can pay $2 for one, or they can order curb-side delivery from their cars. Restaurants in Lake County were allowed to start reopening for dine-in service from May 18, but Kelly plans to wait another two weeks to take that step.
“We don’t need to be first in all this,” she said.
Other proprietors have eagerly welcomed all patrons desperately fleeing their homes. “They were so excited to be out at a restaurant and out in the world doing things,” said Christy Hackinson, who owns The Alley on Main restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “Mainly what we heard from people was: Thank you so much for being open, for giving us a place to go.”
The piecemeal approach that the U.S. and various states have taken has angered many business owners, who yearn for safety guidance.
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