We’re already in a recession and don’t know it, an economist told us. Here are the best ways to spend money wisely to boost the economy until the government gets its act together.

Restaurant workers are among those hardest hit by economic slowdown coronavirus is causing. ALAA AL-MARJANI/Reuters
  • Coronavirus has been shutting down America’s biggest cities, forcing officials to close restaurants, non-essential stores, and more to prevent the virus from spreading.
  • James Parrott, an economist and professor at The New School, told Business Insider it’s triggered the onset of a recession.
  • He said we can safely help boost the economy by providing funding to displaced workers, shopping at local businesses online, and ordering delivery from nearby restaurants.
  • But experts say the economy really needs government action right now.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

America’s biggest cities are largely shutting down to slow the spread of coronavirus, but they’re also slowing down the economy.

“It’s clear the shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic have triggered the onset of a recession,” James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policy at The New School’s Centre for New York City Affairs, told Business Insider on Monday.

Major cities are already buckling under the economic effects. Parrott said he expects unemployment in New York City to “skyrocket within the next couple of weeks.” Parrott has also told The New York Times that New York City might lose as many as 500,000 jobs in businesses catering to tourists and people moving around the city, equal to a $US1 billion loss in wages in one month.

Small businesses are likely to lose out on “billions” of dollars during the pandemic, Helana Natt, executive director of the New York Chamber of Commerce, told Business Insider. There are already small businesses closing permanently in the city, she said.

Likewise, Pedro Gomez, director of the small business team at Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, told Business Insider that Seattle’s local business have already been “severely impacted.”

With businesses temporarily closed and citizens self quarantining, self isolating, and/or self distancing, we’re put in a difficult bind. How can we still spend money in a way that can boost the economy without putting ourselves – or others – at risk of infection?

For one, we can help by providing funding directly to displaced workers affected by the shutdown.


Many of the displaced workers are in the service sector, who are often paid by the hour and don’t have good paid leave benefits, according to Parrott. Their incomes are going to suffer as the shutdown continues, he added.

Businesses aren’t equipped right now to “send paychecks to people” in an environment “when elected officials are urging people to stay home,” he said. “But it seems you could use an existing apparatus for that,” he added, noting that a social service agency or government agency, “such as where people go to qualify for food stamps,” could provide these kinds of payments to people. “Something like that hasn’t been done before,” but he said he thought it was feasible.

Setting up this kind of assistance from some kind of preexisting agency “won’t rectify the damage that has been done to the economy, but it will put a brake on things getting a lot worse,” Parrott said.

Many cities have also started relief funds for workers that you accept donations online, such as the Coronavirus Worker Relief Fund for restaurant workers in Washington DC, or the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley’s support fund to help hourly and low-wage workers.

While many restaurants and bars have had their dining rooms closed, we can still help keep them in business by ordering take-out or delivery.

An Uber Eats delivery bag. Education Images/Getty Images

The restaurant shutdown does not always extend to takeout and delivery service. So the restaurants in major cities, from New York to Miami to San Francisco, ordered to shut down their dining rooms have done so, putting their employees at the top of the list of service workers who are being hurt by the economic slowdown, Parrott said.

But many restaurants, such as those in Seattle, are still offering take-out and delivery options, Gomez said. He encouraged ordering from these community restaurants that you otherwise wouldn’t eat at to help the economy. Of course, he added, make sure you’re ordering take-out safely.

Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, told The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull that food from a restaurant is not likely to infect you with coronavirus. “Cooked foods are unlikely to be a concern unless they get contaminated after cooking,” he said, adding that “as long as the food is handled properly, there should be very little risk.”

While coronavirus can be transmitted through objects – like a take-out carton – the most important way it’s transmitted is “respiratory droplets,” Morse said. Mull reported that you should continue, as always, to wash your hands before eating.

Coronavirus has also spurred the rise of contactless delivery by delivery apps such as Postmates and DoorDash. And Grubhub has launched the Grubhub Community Relief Fund, where you can donate change to charitable organisations that support drivers and restaurants during the coronavirus outbreak.

We can also keep spending from our couches by shopping online or buying a gift card for a local business.


Consumer spending is the most important driving force in America’s economy. While many major retailers have temporarily closed their doors, many still making online shopping available.

Small businesses are especially fragile in today’s changing business climate. In Seattle, small businesses make up 95% of the city’s establishments and provide nearly 200,000 jobs, Gomez said.

Your favourite small business may have shuttered its doors for now, but it could still have an online presence where you can shop. “Residents should support their local small businesses to the best of their ability,” Gomez said.

Consider local booksellers. Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, is offering curbside book delivery and The Booksmith in San Francisco is offering free local shipping, reported Alexandra Alter for The New York Times. Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers is also offering curbside delivery and free shipping in New York.

People on Twitter have suggested buying gift cards for local businesses who need cash flow and using them down the line. There’s a Google Doc floating around the internet that has crowdsourced local places in Washington DC that allow you to buy gift cards online, according to American University Radio. Look for something similar in your city or start one of your own.

Parrott didn’t discourage buying gift cards, but he said to be aware that it won’t come close to being a real solution. “Gift cards are well-intentioned, but I can’t imagine the magnitude of the payment would go very far in terms of the company’s revenue loss the company,” he said. “That’s something the government will only be able to do.”

While spending to the best of our ability within our means can help the economy, we need government action most of all, Parrott says.


Government action is needed on both a local and federal level.

Consider the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, which is still open. According to Natt, it’s working to try and generate new opportunities where businesses can network without being physically in front of each other. “We’re doing online networking sessions,” she said, adding that the Chamber wants to facilitate opportunities for businesses to connect with each other online. “The best way to generate the economy is to get creative and think of other options to create business.”

Communication at this point is extremely important, she said, highlighting the importance of good information for businesses about potential relief and loans, she added.

Gomez said Seattle’s Office of Economic Development is aiming to do all it can to keep businesses afloat. It expanded its Small Business Stabilisation Fund program to help fund small businesses, which Gomez called “the backbone of our city.”

But Parrott said this moment in history is a time “when dramatic action on the part of the federal government in terms of fiscal policy will be really key in helping state and local governments respond effectively.” Whatever mechanism the federal government puts into place to help low-income workers also needs to be applied to self-employed workers and independent contractors, he added.

He said: “There’s a need for much more effective federal action than what we’ve seen in a long long time.”