The resurgence of the coronavirus is threatening to undercut the U.S. economic recovery and upend Americans’ plans to return to work just as the sweeping social safety net that Congress built during the pandemic is unraveling.
That one-two punch — a new wave of cases followed by the looming expiration of enhanced jobless benefits, a ban on evictions and other rescue programs — is sparking concern among lawmakers and economists who say that while widespread business shutdowns are unlikely, renewed fears of the virus alone can slow the economy just as it’s getting back on track.
That could dampen hiring and keep some workers on the sidelines of the job market — stalling or even reversing the labor recovery, the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda. New unemployment claims jumped last week to 419,000, well above expectations and the highest since mid-May, the Labor Department reported on Thursday.
Biden — whose Gallup approval rating dropped to 50 percent this week, its lowest yet — is already drawing attacks from Republicans over the issue. Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top GOP tax writer in Congress, said the president has focused too much on pushing his “$4 trillion spending binge” and not enough on the virus.
Jason Furman, a former top economic adviser to President Barack Obama who is close to the current White House economic team, said the West Wing is very aware of the risks to the economy from the spike in Covid cases.
“Any problem that has a 5 to 10 percent chance to derail the economic recovery you are looking at very closely and are worried about,” Furman said.
He said that concern isn’t especially high, however, because even under “the most plausible worst-case scenario,” the risk is that the Delta variant “takes what was a very fast recovery and turns it into just a fast recovery.”
Another person familiar with the economic team’s discussions confirmed that the White House is paying close attention but doesn’t consider the virus a significant threat. Biden has been calling on Americans to get vaccinated, mainly out of concern for people’s safety but also with an eye out for the economy, the person said.
Biden, speaking on Monday after the stock market tumbled as investors braced for a potential rebound of the virus, said, “We can’t let up, especially because of the Delta variant, which is more transmissible and more dangerous.”
Coronavirus cases have been rising nationwide and are back to their highest level since early May as the highly contagious variant spreads across the country. The sharp uptick has reignited fears of the pandemic, particularly as cases rise among young children who are unable to get a vaccine and even among those who have been fully vaccinated.
“If people don’t feel safe, they’re going to close schools. If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to go back to work,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist. “The recovery — it’s going, but it’s still vulnerable.”
While it’s far too early to gauge the fallout from the increase in cases, any Delta-driven jobs slowdown is likely to be most pronounced in blue states, where higher percentages of residents are vaccinated but where people are also less willing to take risks as coronavirus cases rise. A CBS News poll this week showed that nearly 3 in 4 fully vaccinated Americans are worried about the Delta variant, compared to less than half of those who are not fully vaccinated or who have not received any shots at all.
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Those same Democratic-led states also have the most jobs left to recover since they had stricter shutdown orders in place initially and then reopened more slowly. Roughly 8 million of the 10 million jobs that are still missing in the economy from before the pandemic are in blue states, said Arindrajit Dube, a labor economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The slowdown in jobs growth, then, is likely to be most acute in the states where the need is greatest. And given how much economic activity those states generate, the ripple effects on the macroeconomy will be more severe