President Trump’s talk of reopening the economy on Easter, which he has now backed off of, has helped launched an important debate. At the moment, we seem stuck between two unrealistic alternatives: 1) a quick return to work, or 2) a widespread lockdown until a vaccine is ready (a year or more in the future). Both alternatives could lead to social and economic breakdown. But no one has articulated a clear vision for what the reasonable middle ground might look like.
What might it look like? The elements of a possible strategy are beginning to emerge. It will probably involve a nationwide lockdown that lasts at least through the end of May. Then, the return to work needs to roll out gradually, and include the following elements: continued protection/isolation for vulnerable populations; continued restrictions on large gatherings; increased production of protective equipment and ventilators; some proven therapies for treating the most vulnerable; priority given to those who can’t work from home over those who can; staggered start times to minimize rush hour crowding; widespread and rapid testing so new infections can be spotted quickly; sharp restrictions on travel so new infections can be isolated and contained; and antibody testing so immune individuals can be identified. The world should be watching China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea as they probe the parameters of such an effort—even though more democratic societies will struggle to mimic many of their less democratic tactics.
Government needs to lead this effort; but business plays a critical role. Fortune will be holding a virtual gathering of members of its CEO Initiative tomorrow, to begin a conversation on this topic. I’ll have more to report on Wednesday.
In the meantime, former Honeywell CEO Dave Cote—who successfully navigated the Great Recession and added $60 billion to his company’s market value before stepping down in 2017—has some advice for CEOs in the midst of this crisis. You can read the full interview here, but some excerpts:
—Focus on leadership, not consensus. “What matters is getting feedback from all your people, then making a decision.”
—Hope for the best, plan for the worst. “Pick a plan and start executing as if you expect the worst to happen.”
—Keep workers around for the recovery. In the recession “we did very few layoffs… Instead, we relied on furloughs.”
—In a crisis, don’t take a bonus. “When workers asked me if I intended to take a bonus for 2009, I’d say that was up to the board… That was a big mistake.”
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