Restarting the economy doesn’t mean life will return to normal anytime soon. Here are 5 plans that offer a glimpse of a dystopian future.

New York’s Times Square during the coronavirus epidemic. Mark Lennihan/AP Photo
  • Normal life in the US won’t return for a long time once the economy is allowed to reopen.
  • A review of plans from several major think tanks and former Vice President Joe Biden found that mass testing and continued social distancing will be pivotal in managing the spread of the virus.
  • But it could also require an unprecedented expansion of public surveillance to trace the virus with technology – and raise new civil-liberty concerns.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Public debate is raging over how to safely and effectively reopen the US economy from its coronavirus-induced slumber, one that’s inflicted severe economic pain to millions of Americans. The Trump administration is pushing to restart economic activity next month.

But it’s becoming clear that everyday life in the US will not be the same for the near future. And experts are coalescing around the idea that the economy should be gradually reopened, and it may occur at different times for different parts of the country.

Business Insider reviewed plans introduced by former Vice President Joe Biden, the Safra Centre for Ethics at Harvard University, the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, the liberal-leaning Centre for American Progress, and the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.

A common theme emerged among them: Mass coronavirus testing and continued social distancing will be critical in keeping the disease from spreading further as the economy is allowed to thaw.

But it could also require an unprecedented expansion of public surveillance to defeat the virus, given the need for public-health officials to trace the rate of infections in communities across the country. It’s a trade-off that would add a dystopian element to American life for many months to come – and trigger a renewed debate on civil liberties.

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Repeatedly testing the US population would require 22 million tests a day, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer. Still, the nation has struggled to rapidly shore up its testing capabilities.

Only the successful creation of a vaccine, experts say, will eventually lead to the restoration of normal social life in the US.

Here are the details of plans put forward by four different organisations, and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Biden said public-health officials should be allowed to conduct “effective disease surveillance.”

Former US Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden supports continuing strict social-distancing measures for the time being to keep the rate of infections down. He also said the nation’s coronavirus testing capabilities must be ramped up.

“There needs to be widespread, easily available and prompt testing – and a contact tracing strategy that protects privacy,” Biden said in a New York Times op-ed.

Contract tracing refers to a method public-health experts use to curb the spread of a disease, according to The Verge. It involves finding a sick person and determining who they recently interacted with.

Biden also said public health officials should be empowered to conduct “effective disease surveillance.”

Depending on how much technology is incorporated into contact tracing, the practice could raise a slew of civil-liberties issues.

The former vice president said that life wouldn’t be returning to normal anytime soon.

“Things will not go back to ‘normal’ right away,” Biden wrote. “As public health experts have said, we should expect activity to return gradually, with sites like offices and stores reopening before arenas and theatres.”

Other possible scenarios Biden laid out included spacing out workers in offices and factories, and reordering layouts in restaurants to keep diners farther apart.

Only a vaccine, Biden said, would “extinguish” the threat of the coronavirus.

The Harvard plan envisioned a surveillance state put in place to fight the pandemic alongside a mass-testing effort.

Health workers.

The Safra Centre at Harvard has been releasing a number of plans offering a look into the technological implications of fighting the pandemic.

One of the Safra Centre’s proposals called to ease current social-distancing guidelines after the meeting of several conditions, including:

  • Hospitals have ensured capacity to treat all coronavirus patients.
  • A mass-testing apparatus is in place.
  • Production of personal protective equipment is massively ramped up to the point that every American can acquire and wear a facemask.

Still, normal life would require implementing robust testing in every part of the US.

“At the end of the initial quarantine period, schools could reopen with daily temperature checks for students and staff, as well as weekly testing, so that any new outbreaks could be rapidly identified and contained,” the plan’s authors wrote.

People not in a “high-risk” population for the virus could start moving freely again, but their movements on public transport would be tracked with “privacy-protective QR scanning,” the plan said.

They added that movements in public spaces should be monitored by thermal scanners, similar to what’s underway in Taiwan.

The plan also allows for a second period of social distancing that could occur in the winter, lasting anywhere from one to three months, depending how aggressively the virus is spreading among Americans.

The AEI said public gatherings should be kept to fewer than 50 people at a time and public spaces should be regularly disinfected.

Workers disinfecting.

The plan laid out by the AEI broke down reopening the economy into several phases.

But the think tank said individual states could move on to “Phase II” after a 14-day sustained drop in coronavirus cases and assurance of their ability to “safely diagnose, treat, and isolate COVID-19 cases and their contacts.”

“During this phase, schools and businesses can reopen, and much of normal life can begin to resume in a phased approach,” the authors wrote.

The AEI said that limited social distancing would still need to be in place as the economy reopened, particularly for older adults at higher risk from the virus.

Public gatherings should be kept limited to fewer than 50 people at a time, and everyone would be encouraged to wear nonmedical face masks to reduce asymptomatic spread.

The organisation called for regular deep cleanings of shared public spaces to disinfect them.

It’s a plan also anchored in implementation of a far-reaching surveillance system to keep infections from surging anew.

The AEI described ILINet, the current system tracking influenza-like illnesses in the US, as a possible model.

And it said periods of home isolation could be enforced by GPS tracking on mobile phone apps.

The CAP proposal said people should be able to get their coronavirus test results in a cell phone app.

A health worker.

The CAP proposal argued that social-distancing restrictions should be lifted after 45 days starting April 5, indicating normal economic activity wouldn’t resume in the US until late May.

Vastly ramped-up testing and production of medical equipment would need to occur in the meantime.

The plan called for “instantaneous contact tracing to limit any outbreaks,” pointing to the use of technology in South Korea and Singapore as a critical part of their success stamping out the virus.

Those countries used mobile phone apps to notify people if they came into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus. The think tank said the US should adopt a similar approach, though one sensitive to individual privacy.

Either way, it would be a remarkable expansion of surveillance powers in the US.

CAP said “a trusted, nonprofit organisation” should host sensitive medical data, and not private companies nor the federal government. The data would be deleted after 45 days, and the amount shared among public-health agencies should be limited where possible.

“As a condition of receiving a COVID-19 test in the future, individuals may be required to download the app, which would include their test result,” the plan said.

“For others, the app would be voluntary, although the vast majority of people could be expected to download it to see if there are cases in their neighbourhood or near their workplace,” it said.

FREOP said young adults should be allowed to go back to work, though anyone wanting to travel on a train or passenger plane must prove they tested negative for coronavirus.

Young adults.

The FREOP plan emphasised that the US “cannot sustain” an endless economic shutdown to curb the coronavirus.

The conservative-leaning organisation called to allow younger people to head back to work since they are less at risk from a severe case of the virus compared to older adults.

They also said pre-K and K-12 schools should be reopened, though mass gatherings should still be restricted to keep the rate of transmission manageable.

“States should continue to prohibit large group gatherings like sporting events, concerts, conventions, and theme parks,” the group said.

For people wanting to travel on Amtrak or passenger airlines, they should be required to demonstrate they tested negative for the virus via a contact-tracing app.

The plan also suggested Congress allow states to temporarily restrict interstate travel by car from a bordering state undergoing a coronavirus outbreak.