CHANGMINGZHEN, China — The smell, salty and pungent, wafts through the freshly paved streets near the gleaming new factory.The factory is owned by a company called Laoganma, which makes a piquant chili-and-soybean sauce famous across China for its power to set mouths watering. In a time of global pandemic, when the jobs of working people around the world hang in the balance, the factory’s scents signal opportunity.Since it opened in March, when China was still in the grip of Covid-19, the factory has struggled to find enough machinery operators or quality control technicians. Now workers are flocking to …
The incoming Biden administration unveiled a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan on Thursday that offered a wish list of spending measures meant to help both people and the economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic, from state and local aid and more generous unemployment benefits to mass vaccinations.Below, we run through a few of the biggest provisions, how they would work and what they might mean for the United States economy as it struggles through a winter of surging coronavirus cases and partial state and local lockdowns.Let’s put that headline number in context.That $1.9 trillion figure is a lot of …
Another dose of relief is finally on the way for the millions of Americans facing financial distress because of the coronavirus pandemic.Congress on Monday night passed an economic relief package that will provide a round of $600 stimulus payments to most Americans and partly restore the enhanced federal unemployment benefit, offering $300 for 11 weeks. The agreement also contains provisions related to student loans, rental assistance and medical bills.The legislation, which is 5,600 pages long, would provide welcome, albeit temporary, assistance to many. How quickly the money reaches your pocket will depend on several factors, though.Here’s a closer look at …
In Rochester, Mich., Oakland University is preparing to hand out wearable devices to students that log skin temperature once a minute — or more than 1,400 times per day — in the hopes of pinpointing early signs of the coronavirus.
In Plano, Texas, employees at the headquarters of Rent-A-Center recently started wearing proximity detectors that log their close contacts with one another and can be used to alert them to possible virus exposure.
And in Knoxville, students on the University of Tennessee football team tuck proximity trackers under their shoulder pads during games — allowing the team’s medical director to trace which players may have spent more than 15 minutes near a teammate or an opposing player.
The powerful new surveillance systems, wearable devices that continuously monitor users, are the latest high-tech gadgets to emerge in the battle to hinder the coronavirus. Some sports leagues, factories and nursing homes have already deployed them. Resorts are rushing to adopt them. A few schools are preparing to try them. And the conference industry is eyeing them as a potential tool to help reopen convention centers.
“Everyone is in the early stages of this,” said Laura Becker, a research manager focusing on employee experience at the International Data Corporation, a market research firm. “If it works, the market could be huge because everyone wants to get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Companies and industry analysts say the wearable trackers fill an important gap in pandemic safety. Many employers and colleges have adopted virus screening tools like symptom-checking apps and temperature-scanning cameras. But they are not designed to catch the estimated 40 percent of people with Covid-19 infections who may never develop symptoms like fevers.
Some offices have also adopted smartphone virus-tracing apps that detect users’ proximity. But the new wearable trackers serve a different audience: workplaces like factories where workers cannot bring their phones, or sports teams whose athletes spend time close together.
This spring, when coronavirus infections began to spike, many professional football and basketball teams in the United States were already using sports performance monitoring technology from Kinexon, a company in Munich whose wearable sensors track data like an athlete’s speed and distance. The company quickly adapted its devices for the pandemic, introducing SafeZone, a system that logs close contacts between players or coaches and emits a warning light if they get within six feet. The National Football League began requiring players, coaches and staff to wear the trackers in September.
The data has helped trace the contacts of about 140 N.F.L. players and personnel who have tested positive since September, including an outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, said Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the N.F.L. Players Association. The system is particularly helpful in ruling out people who spent less than 15 minutes near infected colleagues, he added.
College football teams in the Southeastern Conference also use Kinexon trackers. Dr. Chris Klenck, the head team physician at the University of Tennessee, said the proximity data helped teams understand when the athletes spent more than 15 minutes close together. They discovered it was rarely on the field during games, but often on the sideline.
“We’re able to tabulate that data, and from that information we can help identify people who are close contacts to someone who’s positive,” Dr. Klenck said.
Civil rights and privacy experts warn that the spread of such wearable continuous-monitoring devices could lead to new forms of surveillance that outlast the pandemic — ushering into the real world the same kind of extensive tracking that companies like Facebook and Google have instituted online. They also caution that some wearable sensors could enable employers, colleges or law enforcement agencies to reconstruct people’s locations or social networks, chilling their ability to meet and speak freely. And they say these data-mining risks could disproportionately affect certain workers or students, like undocumented immigrants or political activists.
“It’s chilling that these invasive and unproven devices could become a condition for keeping our jobs, attending school or taking part in public life,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit in Manhattan. “Even worse, there’s nothing to stop police or ICE from requiring schools and employers to hand over this data.”
Executives at Kinexon and other companies that market the wearable trackers said in recent interviews that they had thought deeply about the novel data-mining risks and had taken steps to mitigate them.
Devices from Microshare, a workplace analytics company that makes proximity detection sensors, use Bluetooth technology to detect and log people wearing the trackers who come into close contact with one another for more than 10 or 15 minutes. But the system does not continuously monitor users’ locations, said Ron Rock, the chief executive of Microshare. And it uses ID codes, not employees’ real names, to log close contacts.
Mr. Rock added that the system was designed for human resources managers or security officials at client companies to use to identify and alert employees who spent time near an infected person, not to map workers’ social connections.
GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, recently began working with Microshare to develop a virus-tracing system for its sites that make over-the-counter drugs. Budaja Lim, head of digital supply chain technology for Asia Pacific at the company’s consumer health care division, said he wanted to ensure maximum privacy for workers who would wear the proximity detection sensors.
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As a result, he said, the system silos the data it collects. It logs close contacts between workers using ID numbers, he said. And it separately records the ID numbers of workers who spent time in certain locations — like a packaging station in a warehouse — enabling the company to hyper-clean specific areas where an infected person may have spent time.
GlaxoSmithKline recently tested the system at a site in Malaysia and is rolling it out to other consumer health plants in Africa, Asia and Europe. The tracking data has also allowed the company to see where workers seem to be spending an unusual amount of time close together, like a security desk, and modify procedures to improve social distancing, Mr. Lim said.
“It was really designed to be a reactive type of solution” to trace workers with possible virus exposure, he said. “But it has actually become a really powerful tool to proactively manage and protect our employee safety.”
Oakland University, a public research university near Detroit, is at the forefront of schools and companies preparing to making the leap to the BioButton, a novel coin-size sensor attached to the skin 24/7 that uses algorithms to try to detect possible signs of Covid-19.
Whether such continuous surveillance of students, a young and largely healthy population, is beneficial is not yet known. Researchers are only in the early phases of studying whether wearable technology could help flag signs of the disease.
David A. Stone, vice president for research at Oakland University, said school officials had carefully vetted the BioButton and concluded it was a low-risk device that, added to measures like social distancing and mask wearing, might help hinder the spread of the virus. The technology will alert campus health services to students with possible virus symptoms, he said, but the school will not receive specific data like their temperature readings.
“In an ideal world, we would love to be able to wait until this is an F.D.A.-approved diagnostic,” Dr. Stone said. But, he added, “nothing about this pandemic has been in an ideal world.”
Dr. James Mault, chief executive of BioIntelliSense, the start-up behind the BioButton, said students with privacy concerns could ask to have their personal details stripped from the company’s records. He added that BioIntelliSense was preparing to conduct a large-scale study examining its system’s effectiveness for Covid-19.
Oakland had initially planned to require athletes and dorm residents to wear the BioButton. But the university reversed course this summer after nearly 2,500 students and staff members signed a petition objecting to the policy. The tracker will now be optional for students.
“A lot of colleges are doing masks and social distancing,” said Tyler Dixon, a senior at the school who started the petition, “but this seemed like one step too far.”
U.S. economic output increased at the fastest pace on record last quarter as businesses began to reopen and customers returned to stores. But the economy has climbed only partway out of its pandemic-induced hole, and progress is slowing.
Gross domestic product grew 7.4 percent in the third quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. The gain, the equivalent of 33.1 percent on an annualized basis, was by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II.
The rebound was fueled in part by trillions of dollars in federal assistance to households and businesses. That aid has since dried up, even as the recovery remains far from complete: The economy in the third quarter was 3.5 percent smaller than at the end of 2019, before the pandemic. By comparison, G.D.P. shrank 4 percent over the entire year and a half of the Great Recession a decade ago.
The report was the last major piece of economic data before the presidential election on Tuesday. President Trump’s campaign hailed the big gain as “absolute validation” of the administration’s policies, while the campaign of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. dismissed it as a “partial return” that was already fading.
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Economists said the third-quarter figures revealed less about the strength of the recovery than about the severity of the collapse that preceded it. G.D.P. fell 1.3 percent in the first quarter and 9 percent in the second as the pandemic forced widespread business closures. A big rebound was inevitable once the economy began to reopen. The challenge is what comes next.
“The reason we had such a big bounce is that the economy went from closed to partially open,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America. “The easy growth was exhausted, and now the hard work has to be done in terms of fully healing.”
There are signs that the recovery is losing steam. Industrial production fell in September, and job growth has cooled, even as a growing list of major corporations have announced new rounds of large-scale layoffs and furloughs. Most economists expect the slowdown to worsen in the final three months of the year as virus cases rise and federal assistance fades.
Forecasts for the next G.D.P. report are highly uncertain this early in the quarter. But most forecasters expect growth to slow to about 1 to 1.5 percent, with some economists anticipating even weaker results. That would leave the economy about 2.5 percent smaller than before the pandemic.
A 2.5 percent contraction would be the equivalent of a relatively typical recession — smaller than the Great Recession but substantially worse than the mild downturns of the early 1990s and 2000s.
“We’re no longer in unprecedented territory, but this is still a deep gash in our economy,” said Tara Sinclair, a George Washington University economist who studies recessions.
What is troubling, Ms. Sinclair said, is that after the initial bounce, the economy appears to be falling into a pattern that has become familiar in recent decades: a steep drop in a recession, followed by a painfully slow rebound. Congress’s failure to provide more stimulus money, she said, makes a weak recovery more likely.
“Without any further support, it’s going to be a slog,” she said.
Separate data released by the Labor Department on Thursday showed that 732,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week, a decrease of about 28,000 from the week before. New claims have fallen only gradually in recent weeks and remain extraordinarily high by historical standards. And millions of people who lost jobs earlier in the pandemic remain unemployed.
“We’re moving in the right direction, but not nearly as quickly as we need,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, a labor market economist for the Indeed Hiring Lab. “We need to recover quicker so that we don’t have people transitioning to long-term unemployment.”
Laura Mayer was furloughed in March from her job as the general manager at Public House, a restaurant at Oracle Park, the San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium. At the end of September, her furlough turned into a permanent layoff.
Federal aid helped Ms. Mayer, 56, get through the early months of the pandemic. She received $450 a week in state unemployment benefits, plus $600 a week in supplemental benefits from the federal government. Her partner, who had also lost his restaurant job, received benefits, too.
But the $600 supplement expired at the end of July, and Congress has failed to agree on a plan to replace it. Ms. Mayer’s state benefits ran out at the end of September — the same week her job loss turned permanent — and a 13-week federal extension will expire in December, leaving her with no income. Her partner, Steven Flamm, found a restaurant job in June, but at 25 hours a week, it isn’t enough to sustain them both.
“All that I’ve built my whole life just got wiped out,” Ms. Mayer said. “I just don’t know what my future is, and I think that’s the scariest part.”
The G.D.P. report released on Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make clear that the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on low-wage workers, particularly on Black and Hispanic women. Those workers bore the brunt of the job losses early in the crisis and have continued to struggle. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.
Many white-collar professionals held on to their jobs and have been able to shore up their savings as they cut spending on vacations and restaurant meals during the pandemic. And while the stock market has fallen in recent days, it has recovered far more quickly than the economy as a whole.
“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”
Consumer spending drove the recovery in the third quarter, rising nearly 9 percent. But that rebound, too, has been uneven, with some sectors seeing big gains and others remaining all but shut down.
from the end
Percent change in
from the last quarter
from the end
Percent change in consumer spending
from the last quarter of 2019
Consumer spending on goods last quarter rose sharply, nearly 10 percent, more than enough to offset a relatively mild 2.8 percent decline in the spring. Spending on durable goods was particularly strong as Americans rushed to buy cars, recreational vehicles and equipment for their new homebound lifestyles.
Spending on services, on the other hand, collapsed in the second quarter, falling 12.7 percent as consumers abandoned restaurant meals, gym classes and family vacations. Services spending rebounded 8.5 percent last quarter but remains 7.7 percent below its pre-pandemic level.
Two Wisconsin businesses illustrate the diverging paths of the two sectors.
When U.S. auto plants shut down last spring, it meant an immediate loss of business for Husco International, a manufacturer of hydraulic and electromechanical components for cars and other equipment. The company cut back production and furloughed many of its workers.
But by the end of May, car factories were humming again, and Husco’s business had begun to bounce back. In September, its automotive division had its best month on record.
Austin Ramirez, the company’s president and chief executive, said he still expected sales to be down about 10 percent for the full year. Despite September’s strong results, the pandemic and the economic weakness it has wrought are dragging down demand. And the virus is causing other complications, leading to more employee absences. But the damage to his business is not nearly as severe as in the recession a decade ago.
“In a cyclical business like ours, this has actually been a fairly mild recession that we’ve had tools to manage,” Mr. Ramirez said.
For Becky Cooper, it is a different story. Bounce Milwaukee, the family entertainment center that she owns with her husband, shut down in March and has yet to reopen. They experimented over the summer with selling takeout pizza and offering drive-in movies in the parking lot, but sales weren’t enough to offset costs.
The couple began the year dreaming up plans for what they would do once they paid off the Small Business Administration loan they used to open the business six years ago. Instead, they had to drain their bank accounts and take on more debt. Now, with Covid-19 cases spiking in Wisconsin, they don’t know when they will be able to welcome customers again — or whether they can hold out until then.
“I’m watching those numbers go up and just feeling so powerless,” Ms. Cooper said. “The beginning of March seems almost insanely optimistic to me, and I don’t see how much past that we could possibly go.”
Gillian Friedman and Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.
As far as the law is concerned, there is no reason that Amedeo Rossi can’t reopen his martini bar in downtown Des Moines, or resume shows at his concert venue two doors down. Yet Mr. Rossi’s businesses remain dark, and one has closed for good.
There are no restrictions keeping Denver Foote from carrying on with her work at the salon where she styles hair. But Ms. Foote is picking up only two shifts a week, and is often sent home early because there are so few customers.
No lockdown stood in the way of the city’s Oktoberfest, but the celebration was canceled. “We could have done it, absolutely,” said Mindy Toyne, whose company has produced the event for 17 years. “We just couldn’t fathom a way that we could produce a festival that was safe.”
President Trump and many supporters blame restrictions on business activity, often imposed by Democratic governors and mayors, for prolonging the economic crisis initially caused by the virus. But the experience of states like Iowa shows the economy is far from back to normal even in Republican-led states that have imposed few business restrictions.
A growing body of research has concluded that the steep drop in economic activity last spring was primarily a result of individual decisions by consumers and businesses rather than legal mandates. People stopped going to restaurants even before governors ordered them shut down. Airports emptied out even though there were never significant restrictions on domestic air travel.
States like Iowa that reopened quickly did have an initial pop in employment and sales. But more cautious states have at least partly closed that gap, and have seen faster economic rebounds in recent months by many measures.
Economists say it is hard to estimate exactly how much economic activity is still being restrained by capacity limits, social-distancing rules and similar policies, many of which have been lifted or loosened even in places governed by Democrats. In most states, restaurants, retail stores and even bars are allowed to operate.
Perhaps the most widespread government action that has hindered economic growth is the decision by many school districts to adopt virtual learning at the start of the school year, which appears to have driven many parents, particularly women, out of the labor force to care for young children who would otherwise be in class.
But as the pandemic flares again in much of the country, most economists agree this much is clear: The main thing holding back the economy is not formal restrictions. It is people’s continued fear of the virus itself.
“You can’t just open the economy and expect everything to go back to pre-Covid levels,” said Michael Luca, a Harvard Business School economist who has studied the impact of restrictions during the pandemic. “If a market is not safe, people won’t participate in it.”
Iowa was one of only a handful of states that never imposed a full stay-at-home order. Restaurants, movie theaters, hair salons and bars were allowed to reopen starting in May, earlier than in most states. Gov. Kim Reynolds has emphasized the need to make the economy a priority, and has blocked cities and towns from requiring masks or imposing many other restrictions.
Even so, Iowa has regained just over half of the 186,000 jobs it lost between February and April, and progress — as in the country as a whole — is slowing. Many businesses worry they won’t be able to make it through the winter without more help from Congress. Others have already failed. Now, coronavirus cases are rising there.
Vaudeville Mews, the small performance hall that Mr. Rossi opened in Des Moines in 2002, was a labor of love even in the best of times. The venue attracted a fan base with its willingness to book independent acts, but it often lost money. Mr. Rossi had been saving up in hopes of buying a new space, but the pandemic ended that dream.
Legally, music venues in Iowa were allowed to reopen in June, but with social-distancing requirements that significantly reduced their capacity. Even if those rules were lifted, Mr. Rossi said, he couldn’t see a path toward reopening safely and profitably anytime soon. This month, he announced that Vaudeville Mews would be closing permanently.
“We couldn’t pay our rent, and it was piling up, and we were constantly still getting drained by internet bill, insurance bill, utility bill,” he said. “Who wants to go into huge debt to float a business that we don’t see any end in sight?”
Mr. Rossi’s nearby bar, the Lift, is officially still in business, but aside from a brief experiment with deliveries, it hasn’t served a drink since March. He has considered welcoming a small number of customers on a reservation-only basis, but so far hasn’t figured out how to reopen in a way that would both be safe and not cost him even more than staying closed.
“We felt it would be worse for us to reopen,” he said.
At Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company, around the corner from Vaudeville Mews and the Lift, the lack of nightlife is taking a toll on business. So is the lack of the normal lunchtime crowd, with many office employees still working from home. Court Avenue reopened in May, but has regained just 30 to 40 percent of its pre-pandemic sales, according to the owner, Scott Carlson.
“Even if the governor said, ‘Hey, we’re taking away all restrictions and all mandates and all recommendations,’ our numbers wouldn’t change, not very dramatically,” he said.
Iowa has outperformed many other states economically during the pandemic, at least by some measures. The unemployment rate capped out at 11 percent in April — below the 14.7 percent hit by the country as a whole — and it has fallen quickly, to 4.7 percent in September.
But economists attribute Iowa’s success primarily to its favorable mix of industries. The state relies more heavily than most on agriculture and manufacturing, which were comparatively insulated from the virus.
Vulnerable industries like tourism, hospitality and retail sales are struggling in Iowa as they are everywhere else. Data compiled by researchers at Harvard and Brown Universities from private sources shows that consumer spending has rebounded more slowly in Iowa than in neighboring states.
“Retailers are still having a tough go of it in Iowa,” said Ernie Goss, a Creighton University economist who studies Iowa and the Midwest. “You’re talking about individuals who regardless of regulations are not going back in a restaurant right now.”
Mike Draper owns a chain of T-shirt shops with three stores in Iowa and others in Omaha, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo. Customer traffic is down 30 to 50 percent in all of them, he said, with no consistent patterns based on the rules local governments have imposed.
“It has almost nothing to do with regulations,” Mr. Draper said. “It’s really driven by people’s mentality more than regulations.”
There is little doubt that restrictions are restraining some economic activity, particularly in parts of the country that have strictly limited restaurant capacity and indoor gatherings. Local business owners say that restaurants are noticeably busier in Davenport, Iowa, than across the Mississippi River in Moline, Ill., where rules on mask-wearing and social distancing are stricter and more consistently enforced, although business is not back to normal on either side of the river.
But greater activity can also come with a cost, to both public health and the economy. When college campuses in Iowa reopened in August, students packed into bars and nightclubs — and coronavirus cases quickly began to rise. Governor Reynolds shut down bars in several college towns for more than a month.
For some workers, Iowa’s situation is the worst of both worlds: They are back at work, putting them at risk of contracting the virus, but don’t have enough customers to make a living.
Ms. Foote, 24, had worked at the beauty salon for just a few weeks when it shut down because of the pandemic. The job was the fulfillment of a longstanding dream — after years of juggling school and low-wage jobs, she was finally working full time and on track to get benefits.
Even so, when the salon reopened in the spring, she was scared to return to work. And once she did go back, there was little work for her.
“I just kind of sit around and don’t do anything,” she said. “People are scared to go into the salon and sit for an hour.”
Ms. Foote said she was taking home just $200 for each two-week pay period, meaning she again needs to supplement her income with part-time jobs. But she isn’t sure she should be rooting for business to pick up.
“I don’t see how me going to the salon more often and exposing myself is going to make things better,” she said. “I don’t think that’s safe, personally.”