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Businesses Are Reopening, But Customers May Not Be Ready To Go Back


And I'm Steve Inskeep with an important clarification. We've pointed out that the president cannot really open up the economy. Governors decide when to lift stay at home orders. Here's the clarification. Even governors cannot make a business reopen or make people leave home. You decide. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Marshall Gilmore has spent a lot of sleepless nights lately wondering what would happen to his restaurant, the Harvest Grill in Meridian, Miss. Then this month, he got what he'd been waiting for. The state let him reopen, at least partially. There were a lot of rules to comply with.

MARSHALL GILMORE: We had to get rid of half tables, chairs. Our staff is all required to wear a face mask. You're required to have hand sanitizer at your entrances, exits and at the host station.

ZARROLI: But Gilmore says even operating at 50% capacity, he has plenty of empty tables. In fact, he still makes more money on curbside food pickup than he does on table service.

GILMORE: People are just a little apprehensive about getting out in public. This was a once-in-a-lifetime-scare scare that we all just went through. So everybody's a little scared.

ZARROLI: And that fear has had a profound effect on the economy. The slowdown that began in March has been massive and unprecedented. Companies canceled conferences and shut their offices down. Professional sports teams stopped playing. Even churches closed their doors. And this began to happen even before states were issuing lockdown orders. Felipe Lozano-Rojas of Indiana University says people just chose not to go out.

FELIPE LOZANO-ROJAS: The fear itself might prevent them from actually going to work. Or they might be forced either to stay at home because they are sick or because they have to attend somebody in their families or households who is sick.

ZARROLI: In other words, governors didn't shut down the economy all by themselves. And it's not clear they can open it back up again.

LOZANO-ROJAS: I'm very curious to what extent they're going to manage to actually achieve a full opening.

ZARROLI: States that have reopened their economies have stressed how important it is to do it in a careful and cautious way. Here's Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.


RON DESANTIS: We will get Florida back on its feet by using an approach that is safe, smart and step by step.

ZARROLI: But that hasn't eased people's fears about going out again. Despite news reports about crowded Florida beaches and Wisconsin bars, a lot more people are staying home. Florida recently began letting malls and retail stores reopen. Neil Saunders tracks the retail industry for the firm GlobalData. He says so far at least, not a lot of customers have been showing up to shop.

NEIL SAUNDERS: And I think some mall owners and retailers have been taken by surprise as to how slow this build is. Consumers are very concerned about coming out. And some are just not confident to go out to locations and shop like they used to.

ZARROLI: Meanwhile, large companies aren't taking their cues from the government about when to reopen. Google and Facebook say most of their employees will work remotely until next year. Nationwide Insurance says it will close many of its office sites permanently. All this means governors have a lot less control over the economy than you might think. Ohio's Republican governor, Mike DeWine, said as much in a recent interview with MSNBC.


MIKE DEWINE: People aren't - feel safe. If they don't feel safe, they're not going to go to a restaurant. They're not going to go out. They're not going to go to retail.

ZARROLI: Ohio officials are drawing up plans to reopen their economy. But DeWine says these plans won't amount to much unless people are convinced it's safe to go out again. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.


Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.