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Coronavirus Threatens the Luster of Superstar Cities

Cities are remarkably resilient. They have risen from the ashes after being carpet-bombed and hit with nuclear weapons. “If you think about pandemics in the past,” noted the Princeton economist Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, “they didn’t destroy cities.”

That’s because cities are valuable. The New York metropolitan area generates more economic output than Australia or Spain. The San Francisco region produced nearly one of five patents registered in the United States in 2015. Altogether, 10 cities, home to under a quarter of the country’s population, account for almost half of its patents and a third of its economic production.

So even as the Covid-19 death toll rises in the nation’s most dense urban cores, economists still mostly expect them to bounce back, once there is a vaccine, a treatment or a successful strategy to contain the virus’s spread. “I end up being optimistic,” said the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. “Because the downside of a nonurban world is so terrible that we are going to spend whatever it takes to prevent that.”

And yet there is a lingering sense that this time might be different.

The pandemic threatens the assets that make America’s most successful cities so dynamic — not only their bars, museums and theaters, but also their dense networks of innovative businesses and highly skilled workers, jumping among employers, bumping into one another, sharing ideas, powering innovation and lifting productivity.

Image
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Compelled by the imperative of social distancing, the cutting-edge businesses that flocked to cities to exploit their bundles of talent have been experimenting with technologies that allow them to replicate their social interactions even if everybody is working from home.

As Mr. Rossi-Hansberg put it, “There’s a little bit of a realization that we can still do things,” even when we all stay home.

Covid-19 is not the deadliest disease to have ravaged cities through the ages. But it is showing us that they might not be as essential as they once were. “Cities are more in danger than in the 19th century even though this plague is less severe,” Mr. Glaeser said, “because we are rich enough to imagine a deurbanized world.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has said he wants to reconfigure the company so half of its employees could work from home within the next decade. Twitter has said it will allow employees to work from home indefinitely. Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago estimate that almost 40 percent of the nation’s jobs can be done from home. If this model catches on, it could reconfigure the geography of America’s tech industries.

A survey by the market research firm Reach Advisors found that companies facing high real estate and labor costs were the most interested in pursuing remote work into the future. “The biggest shift away from density will likely be in markets such as the Bay Area and New York City,” said the company’s president, James Chung. By shifting to remote work, “they can dramatically widen their labor pool and evade the labor-wage trap that they are in.”

Paradoxically, America’s big cities are becoming more valuable, churning out an increasing share of the nation’s economic output.




Metro areas that have gained

innovation jobs

2

4

7

1

9

8

3

6

5

10

Change in jobs,

2005-2017

+75,000

+10,000

+1,000

Gained the most

In thousands

1

San Francisco

+77

6

Raleigh, N.C.

+12

7

Madison, Wis.

+12

2

Seattle

+56

3

Silicon Valley

+52

8

Denver

+10

9

Salt Lake City

+ 8

4

Boston

+26

10

Charleston, S.C.

+ 7

5

San Diego

+20

Metro areas that have gained

innovation jobs

2

4

7

1

9

8

3

6

5

10

Change in jobs,

2005-2017

Gained the most

In thousands

6

Raleigh, N.C.

+12

1

San Francisco

+77

+75,000

7

Madison, Wis.

+12

2

Seattle

+56

3

Silicon Valley

+52

8

Denver

+10

9

Salt Lake City

+ 8

4

Boston

+26

+10,000

5

San Diego

+20

10

Charleston, S.C.

+ 7

+1,000


Note: Data represent the change in jobs from 2005 to 2017 in industries where at least 45 percent of the work force has degrees in science, tech, engineering or math, and where investments in research and development amount to at least $20,000 per worker.

Source: Brookings Institution analysis of Emsi data

By Karl Russell

They have benefited from the rise of economic complexity and the explosive growth of technologies that reward the most highly educated workers. Complex industries like information technology, biotechnology and finance concentrate in large cities where they can find the most skilled employees.

These cutting-edge businesses don’t mind paying top dollar for the talent, not least because — research has found — highly skilled workers tend to be more productive and innovative when they are surrounded by others like them.

Despite the stratospheric rents, which have been pushing low-wage workers out, highly educated workers have continued to flock to the nation’s megalopolises in search of the high pay and urban amenities that have emerged to serve this affluent clientele.




INCOME PER PERSON

In thousands of 2019 dollars

San Francisco

Boston

New York

Seattle

$100

$108

80

$80

$78

$76

60

40

U.S. urban

average

20

0

1969

2018

1969

2018

1969

2018

1969

2018

EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT

Share of population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher

San Francisco

Boston

New York

Seattle

2010

43%

43%

36%

37%

2018

51%

49%

41%

44%

U.S. average

INCOME PER PERSON

In thousands of 2019 dollars

San Francisco

Boston

$100

$108

80

$80

60

40

U.S. urban

average

20

0

1969

2018

1969

2018

New York

Seattle

$100

80

$78

$76

60

40

20

0

1969

2018

1969

2018

EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT

Share of population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher

San Francisco

Boston

2010

43%

43%

2018

51%

49%

U.S. average

New York

Seattle

2010

36%

37%

2018

41%

44%

U.S. average


Sources: Bureau of Economic Analysis (income); Census Bureau (education)

By Guilbert Gates

From 1980 to 2018, the income per person in New York’s metropolitan area rose from 118 percent of the national average to 141 percent, according to government data. Boston’s rose from 109 to 144 percent, San Francisco’s from 137 to 183 percent, and Seattle’s from 120 to 137 percent.

But if big-city businesses find that work from home doesn’t hit their productivity too hard, they might reassess the need to pay top dollar to keep employees in, say, Seattle or the Bay Area. Workers cooped up in a two-bedroom in Long Island City, Queens, might prefer moving to the suburbs or even farther away, and save on rent.

Mr. Glaeser and colleagues from Harvard and the University of Illinois studied surveys tracking companies that allowed their employees to work from home at least part of the time since March. Over one-half of large businesses and over one-third of small ones didn’t detect any productivity loss. More than one in four reported a productivity increase.

Moreover, the researchers found that about four in 10 companies expect that 40 percent of their employees who switched to remote work during the pandemic will keep doing so after the crisis, at least in part. That’s 16 percent of the work force. Most of these workers are among the more highly educated and well paid.

Will they stay in the city if they don’t need to go to the office more than a couple of times a week? Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that people will always seek the kind of social contact that cities provide. But what if their employers stop paying enough to support the urban lifestyle? Young families might flee to the suburbs sooner, especially if a more austere new urban economy can no longer support the ecosystem of restaurants and theaters that made city life attractive.

The overall economy might be less productive, having lost some of the benefits of social connection. But as long as the hit is not too severe, employers might be better off, paying lower wages and saving on office space. And workers might prefer a state of the world with somewhat lower wages and no commute.

Municipal governments in superstar cities might have a tough time doing their job as their tax base shrinks. The survival of brick-and-mortar retailers will be threatened as social distancing accelerates the shift to online shopping.

Smaller cities might benefit. If they don’t have to go into the office more than a couple of times a year, highly skilled workers in places like Seattle or Los Angeles might prefer Boulder or Vail.

“Everybody agrees on what are the key forces,” said Gilles Duranton, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “The question is which will play out, and where are the tipping points?”

Image

Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

One of the big remaining questions is whether remote work will prove sustainable. The productivity increases captured in the surveys examined by Mr. Glaeser’s team might prove fleeting.

“In the more likely state of the world, we realize that we can carry on a project remotely for one or two days but ultimately we do need face-to-face interaction,” said Enrico Moretti, an expert in urban economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Remote education has proved inferior. In the long run, people may still need to live close to where they work.

And yet, technology continues to improve. “There are more incentives to invest in more technologies to stay at home,” Mr. Rossi-Hansberg said.

So what would the post-Covid city look like?

Mr. Rossi-Hansberg suggests that a reconfigured urban America could look a bit more like the 1980s, before technology set in motion the forces that produced the present-day superstars, leaving other places behind. “This would flatten the distribution of cities and reduce the occupational polarization of cities,” he said.

It would be a different world. But it might not be too terrible for urban living.

Consider life in a reconfigured New York City. Rents are lower, after the departure of many of its bankers and lawyers. There are fewer fancy restaurants, but probably still many cheaper ones. People with lower incomes, including the young, can again afford to live in town. City services may be reduced, but if a fifth or more of workers aren’t going to the office on any given day it will be easier to get around.

Mr. Duranton argues that the cities that will be devastated by Covid-19 are the ones that have been falling for a long time: the Rochesters and the Binghamtons, which lost their sustenance once the manufacturing industries that supported them through much of the 20th century folded or moved away.

But for a city like New York, he said, Covid-19 offers an opportunity for redemption. “New York was running into a dead end, turning into a paradise for the rich,” he said. “Culturally dead.” Moving back to a cheaper, messier, more diverse equilibrium may carry a silver lining.

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Japan Falls Into Recession, and Worse Lies Ahead

Japan fell into a recession for the first time since 2015, as its already weakened economy was dragged down by the coronavirus’s impact on businesses at home and abroad.

The world’s third-largest economy after the United States and China shrank by an annualized rate of 3.4 percent in the first three months of the year, the country’s government said on Monday.

That makes it the largest economy to officially enter a recession, often defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth, in the coronavirus era. Other major economies around the world are set to follow, joining Japan as well as Germany and France in recession, as efforts to contain the outbreak ripple around the globe. The experiences of China, where the outbreak first emerged in December and January, suggest recovery will be long and difficult.




G.D.P. in Japan

+

10

%

+

5

0

5

10

RECESSIONS

15

’00

’05

’10

’15

’20

G.D.P. in Japan

+

10

%

+

5

0

5

10

RECESSIONS

15

’00

’05

’10

’15

’20


Quarterly change in gross domestic product, seasonally adjusted annual rate.

Source: Economic and Social Research Institute (of Japan)

By The New York Times

Japan will find it no easier. Initial figures for the April-to-June period show its economy will be slammed by efforts to contain the outbreak.

“The economy entered the coronavirus shock in a very weak position,” said Izumi Devalier, chief Japan economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, but “the real big ugly stuff is going to happen in the April, June print. It’s going to be three quarters of very negative growth.”

Ms. Devalier added, “It’s not a very encouraging picture.”

Businesses had already been staggering before the coronavirus hit.

Consumer spending dropped after the Japanese government in October increased a tax on consumption to 10 percent from 8 percent, a move that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration said would help pay down the national debt — the highest among developed nations — and fund the growing demand for social services as the country’s workers age.

Image
Credit…Pool photo by Akio Kon

Days later, a typhoon slammed into the country’s main island, inflicting enormous damage and further driving down economic activity.

Even before that, Japanese export numbers had fallen steadily all last year on slowing global demand and the fallout from the U.S.-China trade war.

The situation has only worsened this year. The outbreak crushed Japan’s exports, forced it to postpone the Olympics and then put the country on a soft lockdown as it joined other nations scrambling to stop the coronavirus.

“The emergency declaration stopped people from going out, leading to a substantial decline in consumption,” said Kentaro Arita, a senior economist at the Mizuho Research Institute, a think tank in Tokyo. Now, he said, “it is going to be impossible to avoid an impact on the scale of the global financial crisis or even worse.”

Schools shut down, the country closed itself off to most of the world and, in mid-April, Mr. Abe declared a national state of emergency that led many people to stay home from work and businesses to close.

On the health front, the efforts seem to have paid off. Cases rose briefly before receding. The country’s health system never became overwhelmed. The total number of deaths attributed to the outbreak was under 750 as of Sunday, far lower than in other major developed nations.

But each of those decisions had a profound economic impact. School closures forced parents to stay home from work and hammered farms and dairies that make their living selling ingredients for school lunches. Canceling foreign visas obliterated tourism and stopped a source of critical foreign labor. The emergency declaration has slowed or stopped work at many large companies and devastated the country’s many small and midsize enterprises, particularly those in the service sector.

For more than a month, Tokyo’s bustling business districts have been largely shuttered. Foot traffic dropped by 70 percent at the world’s busiest train station in Shinjuku, according to a report by NHK, the public broadcaster. Tourist sites across the city that are normally thronged with visitors have been eerily quiet.

Last week, the streets of the trendy Harajuku shopping district — which typically attracts shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in good weather — were largely empty, with just a few pedestrians walking by boutiques that had closed or drastically cut back their hours.

Recent data hints at the likely severity of the hit to the current quarter’s growth.

Visitors to Japan in March dropped by 93 percent year-on-year to just over 190,000 people, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. April’s consumer confidence index plummeted to a lower reading than in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis or the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Exports dropped by more than one-fifth in the first 20 days of the month alone. A monthly survey of economic watchers reached a historic low, concluding that “the already extremely severe economic conditions due to the impact of the coronavirus will worsen further.”

Image

Credit…Dai Kurokawa/EPA, via Shutterstock

April may prove to be the nadir.

On Friday, Mr. Abe announced he was lifting the state of emergency on all but eight of the country’s prefectures earlier than initially expected — a move that could give the economy a boost. The government will decide on next steps for the remaining areas, which include the economic powerhouses Tokyo and Osaka, within the month.

Still, it could still be a long time before economic activity returns to anything approaching what it was, according to Sayuri Shirai, a professor of economics at Keio University in Tokyo and a former board member of the Bank of Japan.

Tourism, which has been a small but important driver of growth, could take years to rebound, she said. Businesses such as hotels and restaurants that had taken out loans in anticipation of the Olympics might now find themselves unable to meet their obligations.

“Depending on the sectors that were generating economic growth before Covid-19 will not be possible in the coming years,” she said.

“For many years, I think private sector activity will be very weak. That means the government will have to continue to support economic activity.”

The government has already approved a $1.1 trillion stimulus package, a sum that would have seemed large a year ago. But with the United States having already committed nearly twice that amount to prop up its economy, Japan — which in the past was often criticized for its use of debt-funded stimulus — is in the unusual position of being chided for not spending enough on its recovery plan.

Mr. Abe on Thursday said the government was discussing more measures to prop up the economy.

Job losses might be stemmed by Japan’s tight labor market and by rigid hiring practices that make it difficult to lay off employees. But keeping people in jobs is not sufficient to guarantee that domestic demand will recover, according to Ms. Devalier, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“Even though Japan will come out much better than other countries, particularly the United States, when it comes to the loss in employment, it doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a shock to wages and income and sentiment,” she said.

Those conditions can create an “adverse feedback loop,” Ms. Devalier said, where a weak recovery in demand makes people more cautious, driving down demand further.

To avoid that, she said, will require more assistance for households and businesses: “It just comes down to the fact that the government is going to have to do more.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

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Now More Than Ever, Facebook Is a ‘Mark Zuckerberg Production’

SAN FRANCISCO — On Jan. 27, at a regularly scheduled Monday morning meeting with top executives at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg turned the agenda to the coronavirus. For weeks, he told his staff, he had been hearing from global health care experts that the virus had the makings of a pandemic, and now Facebook needed to prepare for a worst-case scenario — one in which the company’s ability to combat misinformation, scammers and conspiracy theorists would be tested as never before.

To start, Mr. Zuckerberg said, the company should take some of the tools it had developed to fight 2020 election garbage and attempt to retool them for the pathogen. He asked executives in charge of every department to develop plans for responding to a global outbreak by the end of the week.

The meeting, described by two people who attended it, helped vault Facebook ahead of other companies — and even some governments — in preparing for Covid-19. And it exemplified a change in how the 36-year-old is running the company he founded.

Since the day he coded the words “a Mark Zuckerberg production” onto every blue-and-white Facebook page, he has been the singular face of the social network. But to an extent not widely appreciated outside Silicon Valley, Mr. Zuckerberg has long been a kind of binary chief executive — extraordinarily involved in some aspects of the business, and virtually hands-off in areas that he finds less interesting.

The beginning of the end of Mr. Zuckerberg’s distanced leadership came on Nov. 8, 2016, with the election of Donald Trump. From that moment, a relentless series of crises — his casual dismissal of concerns over fake news as “a pretty crazy idea”; revelations that the platform had been used as a plaything for state-sponsored espionage; the Cambridge Analytica scandal — jolted Mr. Zuckerberg to tighten his grip.

Many of his consolidation tactics have been highly visible: He replaced the outside founders of Instagram and WhatsApp with loyalists, and he refashioned Facebook’s already-friendly board to be even more deferential, swapping out five of its nine members.

Image
Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

With the attention of a quarter of the world’s population to sell to advertisers, Facebook is so colossal that org-chart moves have the effect of creating powerful new characters on the global policy stage. Mr. Zuckerberg has elevated lieutenants to win over hostile territories — the Republican operative Joel Kaplan in Washington, and the former deputy prime minister of Britain, Sir Nicholas Clegg, in the eurozone. And his more hands-on approach has caused, by the zero-sum logic of corporate clout, an effective sidelining of Sheryl Sandberg, his chief operating officer and the most high-profile woman in technology.

Now, the coronavirus has presented Mr. Zuckerberg with the opportunity to demonstrate that he has grown into his responsibilities as a leader — a 180-degree turn from the aloof days of 2016. It’s given him the chance to lead 50,000 employees through a crisis that, for once, is not of their own making. And seizing the moment might allow Mr. Zuckerberg to prove a thesis that he truly believes: That if one sees past its capacity for destruction, Facebook can be a force for good.

“Mark has taken an active role in the leadership of Facebook from its founding through to today,” Dave Arnold, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “We’re fortunate to have such engaged leaders, including Mark, Sheryl and the entire leadership team. Facebook is a better company for it.”

The revamp has not gone without incident. In early May, Facebook struggled with how to handle a viral conspiracy video known as “Plandemic,” waffling as the footage spread to the screens of millions of users. Last week, reporters at the Detroit Metro Times showed that the company was blind to assassination-stoking activity on pages with 400,000 members.

Still, for Mr. Zuckerberg, the pandemic has the potential to be a more favorable backdrop than what 2020 would have ordinarily been dominated by — the presidential election and the difficulties of policing political speech.

In theory, the crisis plays to some of his strengths. Through his personal philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, he has long been interested in curing and preventing disease. Covid is borderless, like Facebook itself, and will require a supranational response at a scale few other organizations are equipped to handle. Solutions, if they ever come, will be grounded in science and not emotion or politics.

Or the pandemic could take all that is dangerous about Facebook and amplify it. When the stakes are not merely a presidential election but global health, any role the company plays in elevating toxic information has the potential to make all its prior harms seem trivial. And if Mr. Zuckerberg is fully in control of his company in a way he wasn’t before — as acknowledged by interviews with more than two dozen people — the success or failure of its response will reside entirely with him.

“I think it’s going to piss off a lot of people,” Mr. Zuckerberg said of his new management style in an interview at a tech conference earlier this year. “But frankly, the old approach was pissing off a lot of people, too.”

In Silicon Valley, there is a certain kind of company founder whose title is C.E.O. but who presents himself as a “product guy.” A product-guy C.E.O. feels more at home developing what is for sale than actually running the company.

At Apple, Steve Jobs was a product guy, inventing the iPhone while leaving the supply chain to his C.O.O. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos is a product guy, obsessing about retail customers while others run the profitable web-hosting division. And at Facebook, for more than a decade, Mark Zuckerberg was a product guy’s product guy.

In practice, this meant Mr. Zuckerberg dove into important new products, giving direct orders to middle managers in charge of whatever feature he was obsessed with that week. It also meant he was comfortable delegating in areas that interested him less keenly — including the advertising machine that generated $70 billion in revenue last year. Even less compelling to Mr. Zuckerberg was the realm of Facebook policy around what kind of speech was and was not permitted. Those subjects fell into a specific category: Too important to ignore, but not exactly what a young billionaire wants to spend all of his time on.

Oversight of those areas went to his trusted inner circle, known as the M-Team. Short for “Mark Team,” its members knew they were never likely to succeed him as chief executive, but they could remain powerful and autonomous within their own departments. At the top was Ms. Sandberg, Mr. Zuckerberg’s second-in-command, whose portfolio spanned advertising, marketing, regulation, communications and beyond.

The 2016 election made it clear to Mr. Zuckerberg that the accommodation was no longer viable, as he and Ms. Sandberg were pilloried for being absent and distracted, if not willfully negligent. Afterward, Mr. Zuckerberg spent a chunk of 2017 on a state-by-state tour of America, but it wasn’t well received; mostly, his photogenic purple-state antics — sitting on tractors, attending church, bottle-feeding calves — just fed the rumor that he was making a run for president. Mr. Zuckerberg resolved to take control of the global superpower in which he already dominated the voting.

First, he made a show of owning up to its failures. “It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough,” he told reporters on a conference call in 2018, reflecting on the company’s string of missteps. “We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm as well. We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is, and that was a huge mistake.” He added: “It was my mistake.”

Not long after, in July 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg called a meeting with his top lieutenants. In the past, he had used the group’s semiannual gatherings to chart new courses for Facebook products, or discuss new technology he was interested in capitalizing on. This time, he told his executives that his focus was on himself. With Facebook constantly under attack from outsiders, Mr. Zuckerberg said, he needed to reinvent himself for “wartime.”

“Up until now, I’ve been a peacetime leader,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, according to three people who were present but not authorized to discuss the meeting publicly. “That’s going to change.” Mr. Zuckerberg said he would be making more decisions on his own, based on his instincts and vision for the company. Wartime leaders were quicker and more decisive, he said, and they didn’t let fear of angering others paralyze them. (Some details of the meeting were previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.)

Mr. Zuckerberg directed Facebook’s so-called “family of apps” — Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook proper — to work more closely together. Instagram had to start sending traffic back to the flagship product; WhatsApp had to better integrate with its sister social media services. Rather than execute Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision, the heads of Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, left the company in September 2018, after earlier departures by the disillusioned founders of WhatsApp. Together, they forfeited more than a billion dollars in compensation.

Image

Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Mr. Zuckerberg also began to participate more directly in meetings that had previously been Ms. Sandberg’s domain — from the nitty-gritty of taking down disinformation campaigns, to winding philosophical discussions on how Facebook ought to handle political ads. Employees couldn’t help but notice a shift in the balance of power in one of technology’s most lucrative partnerships.

Giving speeches and schmoozing policymakers were two of Ms. Sandberg’s specialties. Mr. Zuckerberg began to do more of that, too, starting with a lofty public address at Georgetown University’s hallowed Gaston Hall, where more than a century’s worth of dignitaries had orated from the same antique, carved-wood podium.

Mr. Zuckerberg continued the speaking tour with regulator-heavy engagements in Utah, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere. In Europe, where Facebook had an especially frosty relationship with government agencies, he tapped Mr. Clegg, who has grown into a new role as the company’s diplomat-in-chief.

Publicly, Ms. Sandberg has said her role at Facebook is larger than ever; she is directing a $100 million grant program for small businesses hurt by the pandemic. Many of the new hires, including Mr. Clegg, report to her, and she has said she has always wanted Mr. Zuckerberg to be more visible. “I think we don’t spend that much time worrying about our public image,” Ms. Sandberg said in an NBC podcast interview in February. “The issue is not what people think of me or Mark personally. What it is, is how are we doing as a company?”

But privately, Ms. Sandberg has worried that she was being pushed aside and that her role at Facebook has become less important, said two people who work within her department. Through a spokesperson, Ms. Sandberg declined to comment.

Facebook disputes that the relationship has changed. “There’s a clear structure. Mark is driving the product side of things, while Sheryl is running the business side of things,” David Fischer, Facebook’s chief revenue officer, said in an interview. “It doesn’t mean it’s all or nothing — it’s not zero-sum between them.”

Facebook devoted 2019 to a full-out lobbying assault on Washington, committing $16.7 million to influence policymakers. Only two other companies spent more. But even beyond cash, Facebook’s most powerful weapon was access to its C.E.O.

Mr. Kaplan — a well-connected veteran of the George W. Bush administration — began arranging for Mr. Zuckerberg to host dinners with influential conservatives, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Mr. Kaplan also nurtured a relationship between Mr. Zuckerberg and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law.

In September 2019, New York’s attorney general announced a multistate investigation into whether Facebook had broken antitrust laws. For Mr. Zuckerberg, it was the clearest indication yet that politics and government required his full attention — a potentially existential threat to his company that could no longer be delegated to others. A week later, he traveled to Washington to court members of both parties.

In a private room at Ris, an upscale restaurant next to the Ritz-Carlton, Mr. Zuckerberg dined with prominent Senate Democrats. The group included Mark Warner of Virginia and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — both longtime critics of Facebook’s security and privacy practices — as well as officials newer to tech policy, such as Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Angus King, the independent from Maine.

Over grilled salmon, chicken potpie and roasted brussels sprouts, Mr. Zuckerberg gamely did the kind of basic D.C. give-and-take he’d long asked Ms. Sandberg to handle: He listened intently and made assurances about a range of Facebook issues, from foreign election interference to cryptocurrency.

“He’s an adroit performer,” Mr. Blumenthal said in an interview. “Almost certainly a result of professional advice, and maybe coaching and a lot of guidance from a heavy team of lobbyists here in Washington.” Mr. Warner added: “For a while, I think Facebook, along with a lot of tech companies in the Valley, thought that dealing with Washington was sort of beneath them. I think Mr. Zuckerberg has realized that it’s to his benefit to engage with us directly.”

The Democratic dinner was just a warm-up for the really important meeting, which came the next day: Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Kushner arranged for Mr. Zuckerberg to sit down with the president. The two men had never met. Ahead of the Sept. 19 session, Mr. Zuckerberg asked his Washington staff to brief him about Mr. Trump’s Facebook presence, so that he could casually rattle off some statistics in the Oval Office.

Image

Credit…Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Wearing a dark blue suit and a burgundy tie, Mr. Zuckerberg sat between Mr. Kushner and Mr. Kaplan, facing Mr. Trump and his jumbo glass of Diet Coke. Mr. Zuckerberg quickly noted that the president had the highest level of engagement of any world leader on the social network. Mr. Trump — who had previously savaged Facebook on a range of issues — immediately adopted a new tone, describing the conversation in social media posts as “nice.”

A month later, the president invited Mr. Zuckerberg — along with Facebook board member and Trump supporter Peter Thiel — to a private White House dinner, which went undisclosed for weeks. Mr. Zuckerberg’s simple flattery seems to have paid off. Mr. Trump hasn’t publicly castigated the company since, and months later, he continues to tell audiences that he is “No. 1” on the world’s largest social network.

Within Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg’s more engaged style was rankling employees. The discontent boiled over later in October, after Mr. Zuckerberg publicly laid out how Facebook would regulate political speech on the platform. In the name of free speech, he had said, the social network would not police what politicians said in political ads — even if they lied. Facebook was not in the business of being an arbiter of truth, nor did it want to be, Mr. Zuckerberg said.

In response, more than 250 employees signed an internal memo arguing that free speech and paid speech were different and that misinformation was harmful to all. Facebook’s position on political advertising is “a threat to what FB stands for,” the employees wrote. “We strongly object to this policy as it stands.”

Days later, on Halloween, Mr. Zuckerberg led a regular weekly question-and-answer session with employees. Near the end, someone dressed in an enormous, inflatable Pikachu costume lumbered toward the microphone and pressed the C.E.O. on his policy, according to three people who were present.

Mr. Zuckerberg, now less worried than ever about trying to make everyone happy, reiterated his position. When versions of the same question kept popping up during the session, he held firm.

“This is not a democracy,” he said.

“Not a democracy” could also describe Facebook’s nine-person board of directors. Mr. Zuckerberg chairs the group, holds a majority of voting shares and controls its dynamics.

The board isn’t exactly a check on his power. Last year, Kenneth Chenault, the former chief executive of American Express, suggested creating an independent committee to scrutinize the company’s challenges and pose the sort of probing questions the board wasn’t used to being asked. The idea, previously reported by The Journal, was swiftly voted down by Mr. Zuckerberg and others.

Other board disagreements, specifically around political advertising and the spread of misinformation, always ended with Mr. Zuckerberg’s point of view winning out. In March, Mr. Chenault announced he would not stand for re-election; soon, so did another director, Jeffrey Zients, who had also challenged some of Mr. Zuckerberg’s positions.

To replace them, Mr. Zuckerberg picked Drew Houston, the chief executive of Dropbox, who was also a longtime friend and occasional Ping-Pong partner, and Peggy Alford, the former chief financial officer of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Three other appointees are set to join the board this year, including executives from McKinsey and Co. and Estée Lauder. The remaining three board members are a friendly bunch: Mr. Thiel and Marc Andreessen, venture capitalists who are among Facebook’s earliest and most loyal investors, and Ms. Sandberg.

With his board issues in the rearview, Mr. Zuckerberg has been able to devote more of his attention to the coronavirus. He started following the disease early, fielding reports from experts including Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control. Mr. Zuckerberg was advised not to trust preliminary reports out of China that the virus was contained, or the baseless assurances from Mr. Trump that it would not greatly affect the United States. On March 19, well ahead of many states’ stay-at-home orders, Mr. Zuckerberg broadcast a live video chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease official, on his personal Facebook page.

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Since the pandemic began, video and audio calls on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have more than doubled. Group calls in some especially hard-hit countries, like Italy, soared by 1,000 percent. Messaging across Instagram and Facebook is up 50 percent across many of the busiest countries. Homebound in Palo Alto, Mr. Zuckerberg has been pushing his employees to build new products that people can use to connect with one another. The latest is a rival to Zoom, which he hopes will corner the video-calling market.

“When the world changes quickly, people have new needs, and that means that there are more new segments to build,” he said on a conference call with investors in April. “I have always believed that in times of economic downturn, the right thing to do is to keep investing in building the future.”

It remains to be seen what an increasingly visible Mr. Zuckerberg will do when challenged by the powerful. In March, in an interview with The New York Times, he said Facebook would not tolerate “misinformation that has imminent risk of danger.” He cited as an example “things like ‘You can cure this by drinking bleach.’ I mean, that’s just in a different class.”

Days later, during a White House news conference, Mr. Trump wondered aloud about an “injection inside” of disinfectant. As poison control centers were flooded with questions and the makers of Clorox and Lysol issued statements imploring Americans not to ingest their caustic cleaners, Facebook wilted, and across the platform, video of the comments went swiftly viral.

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When Will Companies Let Workers Back Into the Office

Even as President Trump has said “we have to get our country open again,” much of corporate America is in no rush to return employees to their campuses and skyscrapers. The companies are racing not to be the first back, but the last.

An increasing number of them, which mostly have white-collar employees, have recently extended work-from-home policies far beyond the shelter-in-place timelines mandated by state and local authorities.

Google and Facebook employees were told Thursday that they could stay home until next year. Capital One informed 40,000 workers that they will be out through Labor Day and possibly longer. Amazon is saying October. Nationwide Insurance is moving more aggressively than other firms, shuttering five offices around the country and having its 4,000 employees telecommute permanently.

The moves reflect the reality that no one is sure how the coronavirus pandemic will evolve. While deaths from the virus in hot zones like New York City have come down, new outbreaks have emerged elsewhere. Almost every day, there are at least 20,000 new cases in the U.S., bringing the country’s total to more than 1.2 million.

But even after the coronavirus no longer requires it, working from home is likely to retain a significant presence in corporate life. It will affect the shape of cities and the commercial real-estate industry, and change the culture at companies that for years have been building elaborate temples for their workers.

For many companies, which started having employees work from home in March, prolonging the policy is not just a safety measure. It is a pragmatic approach that helps workers with young children plan for a difficult summer, and gives management time to reconfigure open-office plans into something safer.

Some companies said there is another reason: Working from home is working out well.

“Working from home is a great thing for the company and for the employees, who don’t want to get back in cars and commute for two hours. That’s lost productivity,” said Joan Burke, the chief people officer of DocuSign, a San Francisco tech company that enables electronic agreements. “I see it happening way more often in the future.”

DocuSign recently announced a September return but said it could easily be later. California is in lockdown until May 31, its governor, Gavin Newsom, has said.

It is no coincidence that tech companies are in the front ranks of the stay-at-home movement. Their software promotes working at a distance. Tattoo parlors, bars and hairdressing salons, all of which need face-to-face interaction with customers, have no such luxury.

Before the coronavirus struck, 8 percent of all wage and salaried employees worked from home at least one day a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; about 2 percent worked from home full time. In a matter of days, the pandemic pushed telecommuting from marginal to mandatory in many parts of the country.

Now, even as states like Georgia and Illinois roll out phased re-openings, companies see a future for remote work. Gartner, the research firm and consultant, said its clients — mostly large firms that have little direct interaction with the public — expected as many as half their employees to work at home at least part time.

A broad shift could have major implications for traffic congestion, office culture and corporate profits. Smaller firms could draw on a much larger pool of potential workers who live beyond the radius of headquarters. And for some, it would erase the boundary between work and home.

There are risks to companies, too. Employee loyalty could become more tenuous, making retention more difficult. Managing could also become harder. But the bottom line exerts a powerful pull.

“There are real cost benefits to doing this, and companies are in a period where cost matters a lot,” said Brian Kropp, a Gartner vice president. “Even if employees who are working remotely are 5 percent less productive, companies can save 20 percent on real estate and end up with a higher return.”

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Credit…Stuart Isett for The New York Times

Few are embracing the remote future as avidly as Zillow, the online real estate firm based in Seattle. It said on April 24 that its 5,000 employees could work at home until 2021.

Three months ago, Zillow had traditional views about the workplace. About 2 percent of its employees worked remotely; another 4 percent worked from home part of the time. Everyone else went in every day.

“I don’t see those numbers ever going back to where they were,” Dan Spaulding, Zillow’s chief people officer, said in an interview. “Our bias against working from home has been completely exploded.” He said employees have stayed engaged while at home and the company was “not seeing any discernible drop in productivity.”

When Rich Barton, Zillow’s chief executive, tweeted his emphatic support for working from home late last month, a critic responded by quoting a post from the employment rating site Glassdoor that “the constant check-ins, daily reports and hours of meetings a day make it impossible to get your job completed.”

Mr. Spaulding acknowledged that “there are pieces that are negative here. The Zoom calls are great on some days, not on other days, and downright atrocious for some kinds of collaboration.”

The open-office plan favored by Zillow and many other companies, however maligned, at least in theory encouraged a collaborative environment. Now they all need to think about reconfiguring to lower the risk of contagion.

“If we’re going back to the 1980s office for health reasons” — where everyone had an office with a door — “I don’t know how many employees are interested in that,” Mr. Spaulding said.

The notion of telecommuting was invented by Jack Nilles, a former NASA engineer, in 1973. It originally was not about working from home, which was largely impossible before the commercial internet was developed in the late 1990s. Instead, people would go to convenient satellite offices to reduce commuting time.

Progress was fitful. New York, Washington, Seattle and San Francisco flourished while other cities lagged. The disparity kept growing.

“Companies tried regional hubs, but it turned out you don’t want to be in Phoenix when all the decisions are made in San Francisco,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor and co-director of the productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship program at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In a 2015 study of work-from-home productivity, Mr. Bloom concluded that it went up, but he has mixed feelings about the current situation. While Covid-19 may help banish the stigma, he said, he doubted that working from home five days a week would grow much.

“It’s hard to remain motivated or innovative sitting in your living room,” he said. “That sounds more like being a gig worker.”

That may be the fate of Nationwide Insurance employees in Gainesville, Fla.; Harleysville, Penn.; Raleigh, N.C.; Wausau, Wis., and Richmond, Va., whose offices will be closed permanently by Nov. 1.

Nationwide has 28,000 employees, about 20 percent of whom were already working remotely. The company said it was “permanently transitioning to a hybrid operating model.” Executives declined to be interviewed.

Other financial firms, which face more telecommuting security issues than other industries, are also beginning to push back return dates. Capital One said Tuesday that any return to offices this fall would be “slow” and “staggered.”

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Credit…Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

Amazon, which spent billions on its new Seattle urban campus, said on April 30 that employees are “welcome” to work from home until October. Facebook and Google made internal announcements Thursday that most employees could telecommute until the end of the year, but also said they would reopen offices this summer for employees who need to be there. The companies declined to comment.

Slack, which makes messaging technology that allows teams to communicate and work together, is seeing its business boom during the quarantine. But the San Francisco company plans to take as much time as necessary to determine any changes for its 2,000 employees.

“It’s easier to manage a company that is 100 percent remote than one where employees are 50 percent remote and 50 percent in the office,” said Robby Kwok, Slack’s senior vice president for people.

That’s because completely virtual companies need to write everything down for employees. Companies that combine the two approaches risk that some employees are more informed than others.

And in a world where crowds are now dangerous, Slack can help workers stay safe by keeping them at home. The earliest employees will return to the office is September, Mr. Kwok said.

“We have this community obligation to be the last to go back,” he said.

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Unemployment Numbers Will Be Terrible. Here’s What You Need to Know.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought wave after wave of catastrophic economic data: the worst decline in gross domestic product in a decade. The worst retail sales report on record. The worst week ever for unemployment claims, and then two more twice as bad as that.

But even by those recent standards, the April jobs numbers could stand out.

Economists surveyed by MarketWatch expect the report, which the Labor Department will release on Friday, to show that U.S. payrolls fell by 22 million jobs last month — a decade’s worth of job gains, wiped out in weeks. The payroll processing company ADP on Wednesday said that the private sector lost more than 20 million jobs in April, with the cuts spread across every sector and size of employer.

To put that in perspective: In the worst month of the last recession, the U.S. lost 800,000 jobs. The worst monthly loss on record was nearly two million jobs in September 1945, when the country was demobilizing after World War II. (The population has grown since then, but not enough to account for the difference.)

The April unemployment rate is likely to hit 15 percent or higher, by far the worst since the Great Depression. And the deterioration has happened with almost unfathomable swiftness: Two months earlier, the rate was 3.5 percent, a 50-year low.

“It’s not just the magnitude of these numbers; it’s the speed with which they’re happening that’s really stunning,” said Nick Bunker, who leads North American economic research at the Indeed Hiring Lab.

Friday’s report will paint the clearest picture yet of the economic devastation, and could provide some important hints about the eventual recovery. But it will also bring complications that will make the numbers difficult to interpret.

It’s no surprise that employers have cut millions of jobs; weekly data on filings for unemployment benefits have tracked the destruction. The most recent report, covering the last full week of April, showed that roughly 30 million Americans had filed jobless claims since the new coronavirus began to shut down the economy. The next weekly report, due Thursday, will probably add millions more.

Those figures are more up-to-date than the monthly jobs report coming Friday, which will cover hiring and firing through mid-April. But the monthly numbers are more comprehensive than the weekly ones, which almost certainly understate the damage. Not everyone who has lost a job qualifies for benefits, and many who do qualify have not yet filed a claim because the flood of applicants has overwhelmed state unemployment offices.

The monthly data, based on surveys of businesses and households, should provide a more complete estimate of job losses. It will also reflect the extent to which hiring at companies like Amazon and Walmart has offset them. And unlike the weekly data, which mostly counts losses, the monthly report includes data on working hours, which will help quantify the millions of people who have held onto their jobs but had their hours cut.

Friday’s report will also provide the most detailed breakdown yet of job losses by industry. That could help answer a question that could be crucial to the eventual recovery: How far has the damage spread?

The last jobs report, based on data from early March, showed large losses in restaurants, hotels and other industries hit hardest by the first wave of shutdowns. Those cuts were no doubt even larger in April, and the report will also show large losses in retail, which has seen a tidal wave of business closings and bankruptcies.

If the losses are concentrated in sectors that have been directly affected by the virus, that could bode well for the recovery, because it suggests the damage has been contained, at least so far. But if it has spread to industries like finance and professional services, that could suggest a cascade effect is underway, with laid-off workers pulling back on spending, leading to lost revenues and still more layoffs. It could take much longer to climb out of that kind of hole.

In the 70-plus years that the government has been keeping track, the unemployment rate has never exceeded 10.8 percent. It will almost certainly pass that level on Friday, and some economists think the rate could be twice as high. That would rival the worst periods of the Great Depression, when economic historians estimate unemployment reached around 25 percent.

But the rate probably should be even higher.

To be considered unemployed in the government’s official measure, people generally must be actively looking for a job. (Or else they can be on a temporary layoff — more on that in a bit.) But during severe recessions, people often stop looking for work because they don’t believe jobs are available, leading the unemployment rate to understate joblessness.

That issue could be particularly significant now, when not only are jobs scarce but people are also being urged to stay home to avoid spreading the virus. In fact, the government is easing the pressure to search for work by offering more generous unemployment benefits, and many states are waiving work-search requirements to qualify. And with schools and day care centers closed, many parents can’t work because of child care responsibilities.

The Labor Department publishes several broader measures of unemployment and underemployment that address some of these issues by including people who aren’t looking for work or who have had their hours cut back. But the government’s employment survey wasn’t designed for a pandemic, and it is unclear how well it will capture all the unusual nuances that the current crisis presents.

“There’s not one number about the labor market that’s going to tell you everything you want to know,” said Erica Groshen, a Cornell University economist who led the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Obama administration.

Some economists recommend looking at a simpler measure: the share of the population that is working. That is subject to fewer definitional challenges, and should provide a clearer picture of the damage. Expect it to show the biggest one-month drop on record.

Perhaps the single most important factor that will decide the speed of the recovery is how many people can go back to their jobs when businesses reopen.

Friday’s report won’t answer that question. But it could provide a hint. The monthly numbers distinguish between people who have lost their jobs permanently and those on a temporary layoff or furlough. The larger the share of workers in the second category, the faster the recovery could be.

The problem is that many temporary layoffs could turn into permanent job losses as the shutdowns drag on.

“One thing I’ve been worried about is that temporary layoffs will not remain temporary,” said Martha Gimbel, an economist and labor market expert at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative.

It might make sense to think of these numbers as a benchmark: Workers who were temporarily laid off won’t necessarily get their old jobs back, but they might, if the recovery goes smoothly. Permanently laid-off workers will in most cases need to start their job searches from scratch.

“Temporary layoffs are a measure of what could happen if we do this right,” Ms. Gimbel said.

The monthly jobs figures are a preliminary estimate, and are always subject to revision. But this month, there is extra reason for caution.

For one thing, the pandemic has made it difficult to collect the data that the numbers rely on. The call centers where workers conduct the surveys are closed. In-person interviews have been suspended. And households and businesses have been disrupted in ways that might make them less likely to respond to surveys.

The widespread business disruptions could also skew the data in another way. Government statisticians use a model to estimate how many businesses have opened or closed in a month. But when economic conditions deteriorate rapidly, the model can struggle to keep up. In the last recession, the Labor Department initially underestimated job losses, and this collapse has been much faster.

The Labor Department said last week that it would modify the model to better account for the current situation, but it has released no details.

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A Family Business Survived One Pandemic. It’s Determined to Do It Again.

By the time Robert L. Stevenson gathered his work force at Eastman Machine in Buffalo in mid-March, businesses nationwide were shutting down. But Eastman, which makes fabric-cutting machines, has been in family hands for four generations, and Mr. Stevenson wasn’t about to turn off the lights.

Standing atop a table in the lunchroom just off the factory floor, he recounted other crises in the 132-year-old company’s history — World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression and World War II. “We survived those episodes, and we’ll survive this one,” he told his employees. “We’re a family business, and we will take care of everybody.”

A little more than a month later, Eastman has successfully battled to stay alive but has the scars to show for it. Forty of the company’s 57 production workers have been laid off, a move that Mr. Stevenson said was unavoidable.

“It’s painful, and we never like to lay people off,” he said. “But otherwise there would be no company to come back to.” He has continued to pay for the furloughed workers’ health benefits, so he feels he has kept his word that everybody would be taken care of. This week, he plans to bring back five assembly-line workers.

Demand for the cutting machines that Eastman makes at its downtown factory is down 50 percent, but there have been enough orders to keep 17 production employees on the job. Eastman’s equipment is used by the aerospace and transportation industries, as well as by makers of medical masks and shields, qualifying it as an essential employer permitted to operate under New York State guidelines.

The 76 office workers at Eastman are operating remotely, even though functions like marketing and sales have been hobbled. “People who were close to making decisions before the pandemic have postponed out of fear,” said Elizabeth McGruder, vice president for European sales and marketing.

Small businesses like Eastman make up the bedrock of U.S. employment, accounting for half of all private-sector jobs, according to the Small Business Administration. Eastman’s durability shows how some small to medium-size companies are prepared to ride out the crisis.

Buffalo lost thousands of jobs in the postwar era as large industrial companies like Bethlehem Steel, Curtiss-Wright and Bell Aircraft shut operations there, said Ben Rand, president of Insyte Consulting, which advises small manufacturers in the area.

Eastman is typical of the factories that remain, he said, noting that of 1,500 manufacturers in the Buffalo region, only 2 percent have more than 500 employees.

Since he took over from his father in 1988, Mr. Stevenson has avoided high levels of debt or risk-taking. That has served him well in the current crisis.

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Credit…Libby March for The New York Times
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Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

Eastman was able to obtain a $2 million loan under the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, part of the larger federal stimulus effort enacted in the wake of the pandemic. “It was trickier than we thought it would be,” he said. “But it’s very helpful.” He hopes to bring enough workers back on the payroll by June 30 to qualify for loan forgiveness under the program.

Mr. Stevenson, 68, has taken other steps to help Eastman survive. The company has cut back on both research and development as well as capital expenditures.

With about 140,000 square feet of production space, Eastman planned to add 10,000. Everything was ready for the contractors in April, but the project has been put on hold, another one of the multitude of small, individual decisions that will cause the national economy to contract sharply in the second quarter.

Nevertheless, Mr. Stevenson’s son, Trevor, who is poised to one day run the business, shares his father’s upbeat attitude. “I know we can weather the storm,” he said. “We’re ready for when the spigot gets turned back on.”

Trevor represents the fifth generation in his family to help run the company and is currently a vice president. At 44, he oversees the manufacturing operations as well as customer service and sales — but keeps in mind the lessons he learned when he started as an installation technician in 2004.

Trevor Stevenson is in Buffalo full time, while Robert Stevenson is managing things from his winter place in Florida, on the phone to company executives up to 10 times a day.

“One of my dad’s friends told me, ‘You’re never going to be able to do anything unless you earn respect,’” Trevor Stevenson said. “I was humble. I did what I was told and learned how to do the job.” He hopes to be running Eastman day to day in about five years.

The company has evolved during his time there, as production shifted from manual cutting machines to automated, computer-programmed devices. The automated machines not only carry higher prices and profit margins, they also shielded Eastman from competition from China in the form of cheaper manual devices that were easy to copy.

“We continually reinvent ourselves,” Robert Stevenson said, noting that 80 percent of what the company sells now it didn’t produce when he took over in 1988.

Eastman employs fewer blue-collar workers than when it made mostly manual cutters; as befits automated machines that rely on computer programming, putting them together requires fewer human hands. Instead, more product specialists and engineers are on the payroll.

The move into automated machines also opened up a new world of clients who work with a wide variety of materials, from Kevlar and fiberglass to carbon fiber composites. Eastman cutting tools are used to trim everything from SpaceX rocket parts to hulls on boats and the surfaces of skis. The wind energy industry has been a source of growth, with Eastman machines used to cut the material for giant blades.

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Credit…Libby March for The New York Times
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Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

Dozens of clients have shifted production recently to medical masks and face shields, working with Eastman to reprogram machines that can churn out products to help combat the coronavirus.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Robert Stevenson said. “That’s why we’re bringing people back. There’s work to be done.” Indeed, demand for machines to cut fabric and make medical supplies is a big part of the reason the 17 workers are still on the job, with the extra five joining them this week.

DPS Skis is a Utah company that is one of a handful of domestic manufacturers of skis and is an Eastman customer. Eastman donated blades and cutting surfaces to DPS to help it make the transition to making face shields.

“It’s our small drop-in-the-bucket effort to meet the world’s needs and contribute to the fight,” said Alex Adema, DPS’s chief executive. “More selfishly, it helps DPS. It’s been a great morale booster and helps keep our team employed.” Without the effort to make the face shields, layoffs would have been inevitable, Mr. Adema said.

The drive by clients to make medical equipment encourages the blue-collar production employees who are still on the job at Eastman, too, said David Gee, a 37-year veteran.

“Somehow, we are helping,” said Mr. Gee, whose father spent 42 years on the production floor before retiring in 1999. “It’s nice to see my work make a difference.”

The workers who remain on the job are those with the most seniority, with their average age about 60, said Rick Deschamps, president of the United Auto Workers local at Eastman. “We call it the Eastman nursing home,” he jokes.

Eastman’s work force, like that at many American manufacturers, skews older even during normal times. Right now, the shop floor has been rearranged to leave six feet between workers, and employees eat at their work spaces rather in the lunchroom.

Like other longtime employees, Mr. Gee and Mr. Deschamps have a faith in the Stevenson family that recalls a more paternalistic time in American business, when employers were trusted to do the right thing and employees in turn were protected.

After following in his father’s footsteps by attending Yale, Robert Stevenson decided to enter the family business when other members of his social class were leaving Buffalo for careers on Wall Street.

“My family has always felt that supporting the community was one of the most important factors in owning a business,” he said. “I was brought up with that philosophy.”

And he kept Eastman, with its union work force, in Buffalo even as other manufacturers were relocating to nonunion locales in Southern states or moving production to Mexico. Robert and Trevor Stevenson have both chosen to live in Buffalo, instead of moving to upscale suburbs like Amherst.

“We’re on an affluent street, but a block from us is not so affluent — it’s a mix,” Robert Stevenson said. “When I came back from college in 1973 and Buffalo was deteriorating, I just thought, I’m going to stay and wait for better times. That optimism has been justified, and Buffalo has been revitalized with new investment.”

Mr. Stevenson notes that Buffalo was hard hit by the Spanish flu pandemic, suffering more deaths than in the current coronavirus situation. But just as his grandfather Wade successfully steered Eastman Machine through that ordeal, he’s confident in his ability to see it through this one.

“We will learn to deal with this as we did with crises in the past,” he said. He survived two bouts with melanoma and was told in 2014 that he had six months to live. But he recovered after taking part in a clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic.

That experience has informed his outlook. “I’m an optimist, always,” Mr. Stevenson said. “Having faced death, I’m not afraid of living. Things are going to get better.”

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Drive-Throughs Are Now a Lifeline for Fast-Food Chains

For decades, the fast-food drive-through has been a greasy symbol of Americana, a roadside ritual for millions of travelers with a hankering for burgers and fries.

Now, the drive-through, with its brightly-colored signage and ketchup-stained paper bags, has taken on a new importance in the age of social distancing.

Over the last month and a half, the coronavirus pandemic has forced small, independent restaurants to close and Michelin star chefs to experiment with takeout. But despite the chaos, the nation’s drive-throughs have continued to churn out orders, providing a financial reprieve for chains like McDonald’s and Burger King even as fast-food workers have become increasingly concerned about the threat of infection.

While restaurant dining rooms sit empty, many people have started treating drive-throughs like grocery stores, making only occasional trips but placing larger orders. Popeyes has introduced “family bundles” to capitalize on the demand for bigger meals. Taco Bell is offering a promotion — free Doritos Locos Tacos on Tuesdays — that has increased traffic at some of its drive-throughs, overwhelming employees. And dine-in chains like Texas Roadhouse have converted empty parking lots into temporary drive-through lanes.

“For many restaurants, it’s an absolute savior,” said Jonathan Maze, the executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine.

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Credit…Tag Christof for The New York Times
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Credit…Tag Christof for The New York Times

At many chains, including McDonald’s, the drive-through accounted for as much as 70 percent of revenue before the crisis, generating billions of dollars for the industry every month. During the pandemic, sales have mostly held steady. In March, drive-throughs generated $8.3 billion across the fast-food industry, an increase from $8 billion in sales over the same period in 2019, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm.

But while it has shielded fast-food companies from the worst economic effects of the pandemic, the drive-through has become a dangerous place for some low-wage workers, who cook and serve food in cramped conditions, often without access to protective equipment. In a number of states, workers at McDonald’s and other chains have staged walkouts and called for increased safety precautions.

Like other businesses that have remained open, drive-throughs are often tinged with fear. Some customers roll down their windows just far enough to stick out a pair of tongs. Others arrive armed with Lysol spray and plastic wrap.

“They’re just as scared of us as we are of them,” said Jamila Allen, 23, who works at a Freddy’s in North Carolina. An effort by McDonald’s locations in Los Angeles to lighten the mood of the workers with a calendar of ostensibly morale-boosting events like Crazy Sock Day was widely ridiculed as tone-deaf.

And despite repeated assurances from the major fast-food chains that gloves and face masks are on the way, anxious (and often mask-less) employees working at drive-throughs struggle to maintain social distance, even with fewer workers on each shift.

“It’s impossible to keep six feet apart in the workplace and definitely impossible to stay that far away from customers,” said Terrence Wise, 40, a shift manager at a McDonald’s in Kansas City, Mo. “If you’re taking a customer’s money and they cough or sneeze, you’re on alert and on edge.”

The Fight for $15 campaign, which works with fast-food employees to advocate a higher minimum wage, has identified dozens of McDonald’s workers in at least 14 states who have tested positive for the coronavirus. David Tovar, a McDonald’s spokesman, said the company has taken a range of steps to protect its work force, including putting up barriers and allowing employees to use trays to slide cash and food back and forth. “Customers can lift it off the tray themselves, so there’s no contact between the employee and the customer,” Mr. Tovar said.

Of all its rivals in the fast-food and casual dining business, McDonald’s was arguably in the best position to weather the pandemic. Over the last year, the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its drive-throughs, installing digital menu boards that prod customers to place larger, more expensive orders. At some locations, McDonald’s has experimented with cameras that recognize license-plate numbers, allowing the company to tailor a list of suggested purchases from a customer’s previous orders.

During the pandemic, McDonald’s has made a handful of lower-tech adjustments, simplifying its menu to make lines move faster by cutting all-day breakfast and using only one type of lettuce. “The less choices you have for your crew to make, the more efficient and fast they can be,” Mr. Tovar said.

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Credit…Tag Christof for The New York Times
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Credit…Tag Christof for The New York Times

Taco Bell has also changed how it runs its drive-throughs. In the past, the company mostly filled relatively small orders. Now, customers are buying much larger meals — enough food to put leftovers in the refrigerator, according to Mike Grams, the chain’s chief operating officer.

“They’re locked up in their house, and so when they come out, and they go to a drive-through, they want to buy more,” Mr. Grams said.

To accommodate those new ordering habits, the company has moved its drive-through workers from the window to the now-vacant dine-in area, opening up space for cooks to assemble larger, more complicated orders in the kitchen.

But not every major chain has been able to come up with pandemic workarounds. Even before the coronavirus, chains like Ruby Tuesday and TGI Fridays, with large dining rooms designed for leisurely meals, had been struggling, closing locations as once-loyal patrons defected to faster, trendier options like Chipotle.

Without drive-throughs, these kinds of dine-in restaurants — many of which have taken on significant debt since the 2008 financial crisis — may struggle.

“We’ll see some large dining chains go under,” said Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant. “It’ll finally be the death knell for them.”

Over the next year, food critics and industry experts say, the closures of large dine-in chains, mom-and-pop restaurants and fine-dining establishments could transform the restaurant industry, creating a more uniform, less vibrant landscape. The pandemic has exposed the gulf between the haves and have-nots, accelerating the demise of beloved but cash-strapped restaurants as the major fast-food chains continue to bring in revenue. Historically, recessions have benefited chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, which typically see higher sales when people are cutting back on spending.

Still, the pandemic has caused plenty of financial pain even for companies whose drive-throughs are humming. The chief executive of McDonald’s, Chris Kempczinski, has taken a 50 percent pay cut. After reporting a decline in sales on Thursday, Mr. Kempczinski warned that “the exact trajectory of our recovery is highly uncertain.”

And individual franchisees may also struggle, especially in the short term. In April, the National Owners Association — an advocacy group that represents some McDonald’s franchisees — clashed with the company over rent payments and other issues.

Over all, however, the corporate muscle of the big fast-food companies puts franchisees in an enviable position compared to most small businesses, especially independent restaurants. At Burger King and Popeyes, individual store owners have gotten help from corporate “franchisee liquidity teams” in applying for the loans under the government’s small-business relief program.

A provision in that program also allowed big chains like Shake Shack to secure loans, even as smaller restaurants with less experience handling complicated paperwork missed out on funds.

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Credit…Tag Christof for The New York Times
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Credit…Tag Christof for The New York Times

After it was criticized by lawmakers and restaurateurs, Shake Shack returned the $10 million loan it had gotten through the program. One reason the chain needed that money in the first place: It does not have any drive-throughs. In the next few years, industry experts say, more dine-in chains like Texas Roadhouse may begin experimenting with the format, given how necessary it has been during the coronavirus shutdown.

Ultimately, the pandemic could provide “a moment of redemption” for drive-throughs, said Adam Chandler, the author of “Drive-Thru Dreams,” a history of fast food.

Since it emerged in the 1950s, the format has faced criticism from public health officials and urban beautification campaigns, prompting cities like Minneapolis to ban the construction of new drive-throughs.

These days, however, the experience of ordering a burger from behind the steering wheel feels more like a reasonable safety precaution than a cold transaction.

And to some, it also feels refreshingly normal.

“It speaks to something that is extremely unremarkable,” Mr. Chandler said. “That you can do that at a time of enormous upheaval is meaningful. It’s poignant in this really chaotic moment.”

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‘Undercounting the Economic Pain’ Even as Jobless Ranks Soar

Despite trillions in stimulus spending and a rush to reopen shuttered businesses in some states, the American economy continues to stagger under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, with another 3.8 million workers filing for unemployment benefits last week.

The figures announced Thursday by the Labor Department bring the number of workers joining the official jobless ranks in the last six weeks to more than 30 million, and underscore just how dire economic conditions remain.

The depth of the chill was underscored when the Commerce Department reported that consumer spending in March fell by 7.5 percent from February’s level, a stunning decline that helps explain why the overall economy is so weak. Consumer activity ordinarily accounts for more than two-thirds of the country’s output.

The flood of unemployment claims continues to overwhelm many state agencies, leaving perhaps millions with dwindling resources to pay the rent or put food on the table.

If anything, according to many economists, the job losses may be far worse than government tallies indicate.

A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that roughly 50 percent more people than counted as filing claims in a recent four-week period may have qualified for benefits but were stymied in applying or didn’t even try because the process was too formidable.

“The problem is even bigger than the data suggest,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist with the institute, a left-leaning research group. “We’re undercounting the economic pain.”

Others have reached similar conclusions. Alexander Bick of Arizona State University and Adam Blandin of Virginia Commonwealth University found that 42 percent of those working in February had lost their jobs or suffered a reduction in earnings. By April 18, they found, up to eight million workers were unemployed but not reflected in the weekly claims data.

The difficulties at the state level largely flow from the sheer volume of claims, which few agencies were prepared to handle. Many were burdened by aging computer systems that were hard to reconfigure for new federal guidelines.

“We’ve known that the state unemployment insurance systems were not up to the task, yet those investments were not made,” Ms. Gould said. “The result is that the state systems are buckling under the weight of these claims.”

The crush of claims is a major reason — but not the only one — that states are backlogged. Frustrated applicants who refile their applications, some as many as 20 times, slow the system as processors weed out duplicates.

Some applications are missing information. New York analyzed a million claims and found many had been delayed because of a missing employer identification number. In such cases, each applicant has to be called back. Callers looking for updates also flood the system, increasing the wait for those who need to correct a mistake.

The seasonally adjusted number of people filing initial unemployment claims is down from late March and early April, when more than six million people applied for benefits two weeks in a row. But that’s a small consolation in light of the larger economic picture, economists said. Before the pandemic, just over 200,000 people a week applied for new unemployment benefits.

“It is declining, but the level is still breathtakingly high,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “Claims could stay in the millions for several more weeks, which is almost unfathomable.”

Mr. Shepherdson said job cuts now extended far beyond the industries initially hit by the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in most states, like leisure and hospitality.

“You can’t close a bar twice,” he said. “Layoffs are now working their way through management and supply chains and business services.”

Millions who have managed to keep their jobs face salary cuts or furloughs, a sign of employers’ uncertainty. Given the trillions spent, “we would have hoped that federal efforts would have been more effective at stemming job losses,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays.

Mr. Gapen said he expected the unemployment rate to hit 19.5 percent in April, a level unseen since the Depression.

The federal stimulus efforts include an additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits through one program, known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. Another, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, is aimed at independent contractors and so-called gig workers who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment coverage. Washington is also paying for 13 weeks of benefits once state payments run out, an initiative called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

According to the Labor Department, all 50 states are paying the $600 weekly supplement, but only 23 have begun benefits under the program for independent contractors, and only nine have started the 13-week extended payments.

New Jersey has struggled to answer phone calls from filers like David Schoonover, an actor from Jersey City who first applied for benefits on March 23 after his show in New York City closed. All seemed normal at the beginning, but his case was marked pending week after week when he checked online.

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Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Unable to get through by phone, he searched for email addresses for officials from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development and sent them messages. One responded, and his claim status switched this week to filed from pending. The department scheduled a call with him on June 3, and Mr. Schoonover said there was little he could do to expedite the process, heightening the financial pressure on him and his wife.

“Every week or so we get the calculator out and ask how much longer we can go if we don’t get unemployment benefits by June,” Mr. Schoonover, 37, said. “We’re pinching every penny.”

New York has had fewer problems than some states, but the volume of applicants is “simply heartbreaking,” Roberta Reardon, New York’s labor commissioner, said in a call Wednesday with news organizations.

The state is calling back everyone who has a problem with an application, she said.

New York has started processing claims from gig workers and freelancers, but one of those, Seth Flicker of Brooklyn, hasn’t had any luck.

“Not a phone call nor an email, nothing,” said Mr. Flicker, 52, who applied in mid-March after his work as a handyman came to a halt. “We are stuck with absolutely nowhere to turn,” he said, calling his situation “a Dante-esque limbo.”

Mr. Flicker was able to delay paying his electric bill without a penalty and sent a check to the phone company, but he is worried about covering May’s rent. “I haven’t figured it out yet,” he said. “It’s nerve-racking.”

In Kentucky, where roughly a quarter of the work force is out of a job, unemployed workers have faced waits of six hours or more when calling about benefits.

One of those frustrated is Lauren Standifur, 30, who lost her front-desk job at a hotel in Lexington, Ky. She says she has been unable to get through to state agencies for weeks and has collected no benefits.

“My whole call log is filled,” she said. “It’s close to 40 hours a week — if I got paid for making calls, I could do it as a full-time job. But I haven’t talked to a single human being.”

Ms. Standifur, who was furloughed on March 13, says she immediately applied for benefits, only to be asked to check her status in two weeks.

When she did, she was told to come back in early April. Her online profile with the Kentucky unemployment agency lists an expected $291 weekly payment from the state and a weekly $600 federal stimulus payment. But nearly seven weeks after filing, she says, she has received nothing.

Ms. Standifur says she calls various government numbers every day, including the governor’s office. But the call volume is always too high, or a recording says the number is faulty, or she hits a busy signal. On Tuesday, she started calling at 6:34 a.m.

Ms. Standifur, who lives with her mother and three nephews, said she had applied for odd jobs and had used her credit card to its limit to buy food, settling for meals like peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

“I’m trying everything I can to get some money in so that when this is all over, we don’t have all these bills stacked up,” she said. “Every day we go to bed and pray that it gets better. But every day, it feels like it’s getting worse.”

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US G.D.P. Declined in First Quarter, With Worse Economy to Come

The coronavirus pandemic officially snapped the United States’ economic growth streak in the first three months of the year.

The question now is how deep the damage will get — and how long the country will take to recover.

U.S. gross domestic product, the broadest measure of goods and services produced in the economy, fell at a 4.8 percent annual rate in the first quarter of the year, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That is the first decline since 2014, and the worst quarterly contraction since 2008, when the country was in a deep recession.

There is much worse to come. Widespread layoffs and business closings didn’t hit until late March in most of the country. Economists expect figures from the current quarter, which will capture the shutdown’s impact more fully, to show that G.D.P. contracted at an annual rate of 30 percent or more, a scale not seen since the Great Depression.

“They’re going to be the worst in our lifetime,” Dan North, chief economist for the credit insurance company Euler Hermes North America, said of the second-quarter figures. “They’re going to be the worst in the post-World War II era.”

The larger question is what happens after that. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this week that he expected the economy to “really bounce back” this summer as states lift stay-home orders and trillions of dollars in federal emergency spending reaches businesses and households.

Most independent economists are much less optimistic. The Congressional Budget Office last week released projections indicating that the economy will begin growing again in the second half of the year but that the G.D.P. won’t return to its pre-pandemic level until 2022 at the earliest.

The estimates issued on Wednesday are preliminary and based on incomplete data, particularly for March. The speed of the economic shift means that revisions could be particularly large, and some economists expect final figures, due later this spring, to show an even bigger decline.

But the data, however incomplete, hinted at the breadth of the damage. Consumer spending, the bedrock of the decade-long economic expansion, fell at a 7.6 percent rate. Business investment, which had already been struggling in part because of the trade war, fell for the fourth straight quarter. Imports and exports both declined sharply as the pandemic brought global trade to a near standstill.

The pandemic has hit the service sector particularly hard: Restaurants are closed, flights are nearly empty, and stadiums have sat unused for weeks. Spending on services fell at a 10.2 percent rate in the first quarter, and spending at restaurants and hotels was down nearly 30 percent on an annual basis. Consumers even spent less on health care, as they put off appointments and canceled elective procedures.

Spending on goods fell at a milder 1.3 percent rate, helped by a surge in spending on groceries as Americans stocked up for the shutdown. But spending on cars plunged at a 33.2 percent rate.

How the Economy Began Radically Shifting

These sectors offer a glimpse of the damage that the coronavirus has had on the American economy so far.




Auto sales fell dramatically.

+40

%

+20

0

–20

RECESSION

–40

’08

’20

Business investment was already struggling.

+20

%

+10

0

–10

–20

–30

’08

’20

Services fell more than they ever have.

+ 5

%

0

– 5

–10

’08

’20

Food at home surged as restaurants suffered.

+30

%

+20

Consumer spending

on food at home

+10

0

–10

–20

In restaurants,

bars and hotels

–30

’08

’20

Auto sales fell dramatically.

Services fell more than they ever have.

+40

%

+ 5

%

+20

0

0

– 5

–20

RECESSION

–10

–40

’08

’20

’08

’20

Food at home surged as restaurants suffered.

Business investment was already struggling.

+20

%

+30

%

+20

Consumer spending

on food at home

+10

+10

0

0

–10

–10

–20

–20

In restaurants,

bars and hotels

–30

–30

’08

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All data are quarterly changes, seasonally adjusted at annual rates.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

By The New York Times

That pattern could hurt the recovery. Consumers who put off buying goods, especially long-lasting items like cars and washing machines, might simply defer those purchases, not skip them. But they are less likely to make up for spending on services the same way — no matter how many haircuts someone misses in quarantine, it takes only one to get back to normal.

When the new coronavirus began to spread in the United States this year, many economists expected a “V-shaped” recovery, with a sharp downturn followed by an equally swift rebound. But those projections were mostly predicated on a short pause in activity that could be quickly reversed. As lockdowns have stretched into a second month — and with disruptions likely to continue for weeks or months in many states — those hopes have faded.

With each month of unpaid bills and rock-bottom sales, more businesses will go bankrupt or decide not to reopen. More workers will drift away from their employers, turning temporary layoffs into permanent job losses. More loans will lapse into delinquency, endangering banks and the broader financial system.

“The longer things stay shut down, the harder it’s going to be to turn it back on again,” said Tara Sinclair, an economist at George Washington University.

Those consequences have led President Trump and other elected officials — particularly Republican governors in states with relatively few coronavirus cases — to push to reopen the economy as quickly as possible. Several states have started to do so, and others, including large ones like Texas and Florida, will begin to at the end of the month.

But economists and epidemiologists say moving too quickly threatens both public health and economic growth. The United States is not performing nearly as many coronavirus tests as health officials say are necessary to detect and contain new outbreaks. Until that happens, a robust economic rebound won’t be possible, said Karen Dynan, a Harvard economist who was a Treasury official in the Obama administration.

“You could lift the restrictions tomorrow and the economy would still not come back if people don’t feel safe to go out,” she said. As a result, “measures that we normally consider to be public health measures are in this case a really important component of the economic policy response.”

Nader Masadeh, chief executive of Buffalo Wings & Rings, a restaurant chain based in Ohio, remembers when he realized the coronavirus was coming for his business: March 12. That was the day that Gov. Mike DeWine announced a ban on large gatherings in the state, and when the National Collegiate Athletic Association canceled the annual men’s basketball tournament that is Mr. Masadeh’s biggest draw.

“That’s when we realized this is really for real,” he said.

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Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
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Credit…Andrew Spear for The New York Times
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Credit…Andrew Spear for The New York Times

Mr. Masadeh quickly formed two teams. The first focused on ensuring that the business could survive the shutdown by cutting costs wherever possible — renegotiating leases and canceling contracts for linens, window cleaning and music service — and looking for ways to generate revenue through online ordering and curbside pickup.

“The impact of it is way unknown, so cash preservation becomes your No. 1 priority,” Mr. Masadeh said.

The second team focused on reopening: How could the company put diners at ease once restaurants resumed business? Plastic menus are being replaced by disposable paper. Staff members will wear masks and gloves. Tables will be farther apart. Cleaning standards, already high, will be higher.

Mr. Masadeh is eager to reopen. But he is also nervous. He has been able to push off bills during the shutdown, but once it ends, vendors and lenders will expect payments. Rehiring and retraining workers will be expensive. And he doesn’t know how quickly customers will come back.

“The biggest fear that I’m thinking about is that we reopen and the number of infections ramps back up again and they say, ‘Whoa, we made a mistake,’” he said. “We cannot afford a second shutdown. We only have one shot at reopening, and if we miss it or don’t get it right, then the inevitable will happen.”

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Credit…Andrew Spear for The New York Times

Concern about the public health situation is complicating the work of economic forecasters and policymakers as well. The usual tools for stimulating consumer spending and business investment don’t help much when businesses can’t operate and consumers can’t leave the house. Standard economic models can’t predict when a vaccine will become available, or when people will feel comfortable going back to work.

“If we could be told right now with confidence that on X date, whenever X date is, the virus will be gone — if we knew that now, I think businesses could plan accordingly and could make the right calculations,” said Ms. Sinclair, the economist. “The problem is that we don’t have that certainty, and there’s no way to have that certainty. There’s no way to promise when we can restart, and that uncertainty is what’s killing our ability to do good economic policy.”

Even businesses that have weathered the crisis in relatively strong shape are struggling with the uncertainty.

Elliott Equipment, an Omaha-based manufacturer of aerial platforms and truck-mounted cranes, is considered an essential business and has kept its production lines running. The company recently moved into a larger facility, making social distancing relatively easy. And its customers — including utilities, telecommunications companies, and state and local governments — are still using its equipment and ordering replacement parts.

But with the offices of potential customers mostly closed to visitors, new orders have fallen sharply, said Jim Glazer, the company’s chief executive.

“It’s hit a pause button on demand,” he said.

Elliott pared its work force of about 150 early in the crisis. It later received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program created by Congress as part of its emergency aid package. At a time when many companies are at risk of going out of business, Mr. Glazer said, Elliott isn’t — it has been around since 1948 and has weathered many storms, he said. Still, he isn’t sure what to expect in the months ahead.

“It’s somewhat hard to plan given that there’s not going to be an on-off switch turned on,” he said. “It may take a period of time — 2022 it may be, even — before we get back to normal.”

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Reopening Has Begun. No One Is Sure What Happens Next.

The economy shut down almost overnight. It won’t start back up that way.

Politicians and public health experts have sparred for weeks over when, and under what circumstances, to allow businesses to reopen and Americans to emerge from their homes. But another question could prove just as thorny — how?

Because the restart will be gradual, with certain places and industries opening earlier than others, it will by definition be complicated. The U.S. economy is a complex web of supply chains whose dynamics don’t necessarily align neatly with epidemiologists’ recommendations.

Georgia and other states are beginning the reopening process. But even under the most optimistic estimates, it will be months, and possibly years, before Americans again crowd into bars and squeeze onto subway cars the way they did before the pandemic struck.

“It’s going to take much longer to thaw the economy than it took to freeze it,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

And it isn’t clear what, exactly, it means to gradually restart a system with as many interlocking pieces as the U.S. economy. How can one factory reopen when its suppliers remain shuttered? How can parents return to work when schools are still closed? How can older people return when there is still no effective treatment or vaccine? What is the government’s role in helping private businesses that may initially need to operate at a fraction of their normal capacity?

South Carolina, for example, looks likely to be among the first states to allow widespread reopening of businesses. But if a manufacturer there depends on a part made in Ohio, where the virus is still spreading, it may not be able to resume production, regardless of the rules.

“We live in an economy where there are lots of interconnections between different sectors,” said Joseph S. Vavra, an economist at the University of Chicago. “Saying you want to reopen gradually is more easily said than done.”

The White House released a plan this month for a phased reopening of the economy, with restrictions easing as states meet public health benchmarks. States have begun to develop their own road maps. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said Tuesday that parts of the state that had fewer coronavirus cases might be allowed to reopen more quickly than New York City and other hard-hit areas.

But those proposals are mostly rough schematics, leaving unanswered crucial questions about how the process will play out at the ground level. Those details may help determine whether the economy will bounce back relatively quickly once the pandemic ebbs or the United States will face a slow, painful turnaround, as it did after the last recession.

Under the White House’s three-phase plan, many businesses will be allowed to open in the first phase. Schools and day care centers will need to wait for the next phase. That means that millions of working parents could be asked to return to their jobs before they have any way to take care of their children.

Mr. Vavra and two colleagues recently estimated that nearly one-third of U.S. households have a child under 14, and that more than one in 10 has no other adult in the household to help with child care. In addition, many reopening plans call for younger adults to return to work first, while people over 55, who are at greater risk of severe complications or death, stay home longer to avoid exposure. But younger adults are also more likely to have young children at home.

Then there is the public health threat: If states reopen their economies too quickly, or without the right precautions in place, that could lead to a renewed outbreak, with dire consequences for both safety and the economy.

“The biggest risk is that you open too fast, too broadly, and you have another round of infections, a second wave,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “That’s the fodder for an economic depression. That would just completely undermine confidence.”

In the early phases of reopening, businesses will almost certainly be required to operate at reduced capacity to allow for greater social distancing. That will require changes for virtually all companies, but in many cases it won’t present insurmountable hurdles.

Offices, for example, might operate in rotating shifts, with different departments coming in on different days and deep cleanings performed in between. In factories, production lines could be redesigned to allow more distance between workers and to reduce or eliminate contact between teams.

But other businesses could have a much harder time adapting. Most restaurants, for example, have tight profit margins even in the best of times. Operating at half capacity — or less — will mean losing money for many restaurants.

“It’s impossible in the restaurant business to be profitable at a 50 percent revenue clip,” said Alex Smith, president of the Atlas Restaurant Group, which operates upscale establishments in Baltimore, Houston and other cities.

For restaurants that were struggling before the shutdown, or that weren’t yet established enough to turn a profit, owners could decide that restocking kitchens and redesigning dining rooms to allow for social distancing is not worth the expense.

“If you were profitable before and your business was growing, then you need to hold tight and hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and things will come back,” Mr. Smith said. But if you were losing money before, “you really have to ask yourself, are you digging a deeper hole?”

The public debate has focused on government mandates: When should city and state shutdown orders be lifted? But just because businesses are allowed to reopen doesn’t mean that they will or, if they do, that customers will return.

Data from OpenTable, the restaurant reservation service, shows that people largely stopped eating out even before governors and mayors recommended doing so, and well before official shutdown orders took effect. Evidence from Sweden and other countries that have avoided formal lockdowns likewise shows that people have sharply reduced their activities even without government mandates.

“I don’t think it was really the government shutdown orders that shut down the economy — I think it was the virus that shut down the economy,” Mr. Vavra said. “Saying the economy is now opened is just lip service. The economy’s not going to be reopened until people want it to reopen.”

So far, there is little evidence that the public is ready. Despite scattered protests, surveys show widespread support for shutdown orders and little appetite for a rapid return. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that most Americans were more worried about lifting restrictions too early than keeping them in place too long.

“There’s no restaurateur in the country that believes that when the government says ‘Go,’ the restaurants will be packed again,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith’s greatest fear, he said, is that Americans will rush back to daily life too quickly, resulting in another flare-up and another lockdown. He can borrow money and reach into savings to reopen once, he said. A second time could be too much to manage, especially because a false start could leave customers even more wary.

“What scares most of us is Wave 2,” he said.

The federal government has already spent extraordinary amounts to keep individuals and businesses afloat during the economic shutdown. Congress approved another half-trillion-dollar aid package in recent days, with more help expected in coming weeks.

But economists say the government’s role is only beginning. Businesses will need help weathering a period of reduced sales. State and local governments will need help, too, or they will have to cut programs to offset a sharp drop in tax revenue. Individuals will need unemployment benefits, food assistance and other aid to make ends meet in a recession that will almost certainly outlast the pandemic.

The scope of those problems isn’t yet clear. No one knows how many businesses have failed permanently, rather than shut down temporarily, or how many laid-off workers will be able to return to their old jobs. But the longer the shutdown lasts, the more permanent the damage will be, and the slower the rebound.

“You can press pause for a period of time, but not too long before that becomes bad loans and defaults and so on,” said Shubham Singhal, a senior partner at McKinsey, the consulting firm. “Then you have the negative cycle that feeds on itself for a while.”

The good news is that the government mostly knows how to deal with that kind of problem. Unlike the current shutdown, which required policymakers to develop programs in record time, the post-pandemic period will probably resemble a more traditional recession and demand more conventional policy responses.

The bad news is that, historically, political will for these programs has ended long before the need for them. After the last recession, calls to rein in jobless benefits began while the unemployment rate was still close to 10 percent.

Elizabeth Ananat, a Barnard College economist who studies poverty and inequality, said she worried that government support would again dry up before the economy was ready to sustain itself, prolonging the downturn and hurting lower-income families, who are typically the last to benefit from a recovery.

“In some ways, I’m even more anxious about the reopening than I am about the shutdown,” she said.