COVID-19 & the Wisconsin Economy – COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus) is the most significant threat to public health in Wisconsin since the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, which killed 6% of the U.S. population. Although fundamentally a public health crisis, COVID-19 has created a corresponding economic crisis, the velocity of which is unprecedented.

Key Takeaways

  • Engage in a Smart Re-Start of the Wisconsin economy, informed by metrics contained in the Key Health and Safety Indicator Dashboard.
  • Employers encouraged to implement best practices to self-determine readiness to meet employee and customer health and safety needs.
  • Providing and sustaining employee and consumer confidence will be both a health and economic imperative. We want regional employers to be best in class.
  • The “next normal” will extend until a vaccine is widely available.

Economic Impacts & Trends

Moody’s estimates that U.S. economic output fell an astonishing 29% in March 2020 (The Wall Street Journal, April 4). To put this decline in perspective, economic output during the initial five years of the Great Depression (1929-33) fell 26%. The halt of commercial activity was felt immediately in Wisconsin, where applications for unemployment benefits over a 17-day period (March 17 – April 2) totaled 264,000, compared to 14,000 applications for the same period in 2019. The economic impact will deepen in the months to come and surely persist long after COVID-19 has been sufficiently controlled. Our challenge is to create an expedited roadmap for economic recovery that neither stymies efforts to contain the virus nor lengthens the period it disrupts commerce and the lives of Wisconsin residents.

Safer at Home

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, recognizing the potential human toll of COVID-19, took action on March 25 to halt the spread of the virus. The Governor’s Safer at Home order directed Wisconsin residents to remain in their homes (except for essential activities) and mandated closure of non-essential businesses. The original order was set to expire on April 24, significant portions of which have been extended to May 26 via a second order. Thanks to the collaborative and diligent actions of Wisconsin residents, companies and frontline health care workers, there are encouraging early signs that Safer at Home is having a positive impact in managing the spread of COVID-19 beneath the crisis curve. As a result, we must turn our attention to a phased restart of the Wisconsin economy that proceeds in step with public and health care efforts to control COVID-19.

Moving from Crisis to Recovery

Full economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is likely to take several years. There are three projected stages of the recovery:

1) Restart: Phased opening

2) Next normal: Stay under the crisis curve

3) Thrive: Post vaccine

When Can Wisconsin’s Phased Restart Begin?

The goal is an expedited return to normal economic activity that does not force the public health situation back into a crisis, hence elongating the broader economic recovery and damaging the collective psyche of Wisconsin residents. The number and rate of new positive cases is trending favorably as of April 17, but continued monitoring of key indicators will be required in the days and weeks ahead.

The Medical College of Wisconsin has created a Key Health and Safety Indicator Dashboard to provide state and local officials with real time metrics to support informed decision making on when business operations can be safely resumed. Although the dashboard is currently populated with health data specific to the Milwaukee 7 region, it can be customized to other regions in Wisconsin to determine local readiness.

The Return to Economic Prosperity: Smart Restart

We recommend that a new plan – Smart Re-Start – be implemented, allowing a subset of Wisconsin companies to resume operations. These companies, as well as those meeting the definition of “essential” specified in Safer at Home, would be encouraged to follow a series of best practices (detailed later in this document) to control the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Examples include workplace distancing and cleaning procedures to prevent infection, screening of employees for symptoms and exposures associated with COVID-19 infection, and use of personal protective equipment.

Businesses reopening during Smart Re-Start would be those that can safely operate without bringing people into close physical proximity of each other. We will be developing a framework and schedule in the coming days and weeks that categorizes companies along a risk continuum (low, medium, high) based on occupational health standards and known characteristics of disease spread. This flexible framework will take into account factors including industry type and geographic location, and will also rely upon each company’s unique operating capabilities and willingness to implement workflow processes that maintain appropriate physical distance between employees, customers and other stakeholders. The framework will be developed in consultation with several organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health experts.

“Best Practice” Workplace Procedures

All companies meeting the definition of essential under Safer at Home, as well as those commencing operations under Smart Re-Start, should enact a series of procedures to mitigate situations in the workplace which may introduce, expose or spread COVID-19. View a list of best practices assembled from CDC guidance and policies adopted by leading companies. We recommend that state resources be made available to assist companies in developing and implementing these procedures, including a strong push for worker education on hand washing, physical distancing and remaining home when not working. The compendium of best practice procedures is likely to change during follow-on phases of the economic recovery to address operating tendencies of other types of businesses. The procedures may also be modified in response to changing COVID-19 infection patterns across Wisconsin.

We recommend establishing a voluntary certification process for companies that pledge to adopt those best practices relevant to their specific type of operation. Participating companies could then notify their employees, customers and suppliers of the certification, providing confidence that the business is working diligently to protect stakeholders. Wisconsin officials could establish a searchable, public website in which companies taking the pledge are listed. This would be especially useful for consumer-facing companies, giving the public confidence that they are not incurring undue risk by patronizing a business. This confidence is key to the broader goal of returning Wisconsin to economic normalcy.