He is imagining other tweaks, too, to help reassure guests — from maitre d’s with laser thermometers to a coat check overhaul to a more European-style payment system that doesn’t require handing a credit card to the server.
“The two things I’m thinking about more than anything are, ‘How do we overcome fear?’ and ‘How do we provide love?’ ” said Meyer, who is also the chief executive of Union Square Hospitality Group, whose restaurants include Gramercy Tavern and Maialino in New York. “Anybody who thinks that the human emotion of fear resides with any kind of government decree is just entirely missing the boat.”
Last week, President Trump released a set of guidelines for beginning to reopen the country amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. But what Trump says won’t much matter if skittish elected leaders, business owners and customers don’t trust that they will be safe returning to their daily lives — and at the moment, most Americans don’t have that confidence.
In a poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center, three-quarters of U.S. adults said the worst is yet to come with the coronavirus and two-thirds were worried that restrictions would be lifted too soon. And findings released Friday by the University of Michigan’s influential monthly consumer survey found that 61 percent were most concerned by the threat to their health from the virus, over isolation and financial impact.
The dilemma is exacerbated by a president with credibility problems, as well as a nationwide testing shortage and the improbability of a vaccine anytime soon.
“I’ve been saying over and over to businesses: ‘What are you doing to make people comfortable to show up?’ Because ultimately all the governors and Trump can say, ‘Yeah, you can go,’ but I think people will still be very cautious,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
Referring to the more than 1 million jobs in his state tied to tourism, Scott added: “How are we going to make all these people feel comfortable coming back?”
Indeed, more than any edict from a leader — from the president to the nation’s governors to local mayors — people must feel confident returning to their pre-coronavirus existence before the economy can truly recover, according to many politicians, business leaders and consumer experts.
“The full restoration of consumer confidence will be more difficult and will take longer to complete than following any other recession since the Great Depression,” Richard Curtin, director of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, wrote in Friday’s report on the hurdles to economic recovery. “Residual fears of exposure to some virus may still limit people’s willingness to be in crowds at sport stadiums, theaters, airplanes, cruises, large shopping malls, or even shake hands at the workplace or social events.”
Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said people’s behavior will hinge in part on how trustworthy they view the leader offering the guidance.
“If the governor seems to be credible on the health topic,” Sunstein said, people are far more likely to be reassured “than if the governor seems to be responding to political pressure or seems to be scared of something.”
But, he added, community signals will also be crucial. “What do people see people like them doing?” Sunstein asked. “If people see everyone else staying home, they tend to think that’s the right thing to do, and they see everyone going out, they tend to think, ‘Well, I should go out, too.’ ”
During a conference call with Trump on Wednesday, business executives stressed the need for widespread testing, saying it would help reassure people they were safe to return to work. The administration has repeatedly fumbled in its attempts to make testing more available — with just 1 percent of Americans monitored so far — and Trump last week said the task was now up to the states.
On an earnings call the same day as Trump’s call, Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon said, “Unless people feel safe and secure and confident around the virus, the economic impact will continue in some way, shape or form.” And Business Roundtable President Joshua Bolten told CNBC on Thursday that safety measures and consumer trust are inextricably bound.
“Because if people don’t have confidence that it’s safe to go out and go to your job or go to a store, they’re just not going to go regardless of what the government says,” Bolton said.
Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, said she expects coming out of coronavirus social distancing measures to be “a completely different ballgame — if there’s a ballgame at all.”
“If you don’t have the PPE and the confidence in testing, I don’t see how people will start to move around,” Whaley said, referring to personal protective equipment. “It’s all dependent on how competent the leadership part of it is, how much PPE and how much testing there is, and that is the X factor.”
Trump, who for weeks played down the threat of the coronavirus, has repeatedly cast himself as a “cheerleader” for the country. “Well, this is really easy to be negative about,” he said during a news conference at the end of March. “But I want to give people hope, too.”
On Thursday, Trump seemed reluctant to the accept the shifting reality of the coronavirus pandemic. He rejected the notion that the “new normal” now may include, for instance, restaurants or sporting arenas deliberately kept to limited capacity.
“That’s not going to be normal,” Trump said. “Our normal is if you have 100,000 people in an Alabama football game — or 110,000, to be exact — we want 110,000 people there. We want every seat occupied. Normal is not going to be where you have a game with 50,000 people.”
The United States has come back from catastrophe before. Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, remembers one of Bush’s economic advisers turning to Bush several days after the attacks and saying: “The good news is the planes are back in the sky. The bad news is no one is on them.”
Fleischer said Bush made a point of making grand gestures to reassure the nation it was safe to continue their everyday lives. In October 2001, for instance, Bush spoke at the reopening of Reagan Washington National Airport, the last airport to open after the attacks.
The next month, Bush threw out the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — a perfect strike. “The crowed went nuts cheering ‘USA! USA!’ and that to me was the defining moment when America roared, ‘We’re back,’ ” Fleischer said. “It just felt cathartic, and it helped people resume their lives.”
Publicly symbolic acts of reassurance are more difficult amid a global contagion that requires social distancing. But on Saturday, Vice President Pence traveled to Colorado to attend the Air Force Academy’s graduation, and White House aides have begun preliminary discussions about where Trump might visit in the coming weeks, all while abiding by public health best practices.
Trump also made a point of organizing faith-based and sports advisory councils for the pandemic because he understands those communities form an essential part of the fabric of society, a White House official said.
“Despite Democrats’ and the media’s coordinated efforts to criticize this president for providing hope and direction throughout this pandemic, it was President Trump who has delivered a message of comfort, unity and strength while taking bold actions to save lives and set this great country on a data-driven, safe path to begin to reopen soon,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.
But Trump — an unpopular president known for his mistruths and misstatements — faces a daunting task convincing at least some of the public that he can be trusted in his public health pronouncements.
“Based on his credibility and past history, I would not believe him,” said Mark Holmes, 58, who lives in Orlando and considers himself politically independent. “I would believe scientific experts.”
Holmes likened his personal comfort level to New Year’s Eve considerations: He knows he will behave safely but isn’t sure everyone else won’t drink and drive — or, in this case, take proper health precautions.
Absent widespread testing or, better yet, a coronavirus vaccine, Holmes said he would feel more confident knowing that at least the other people around him have been tested. “This sounds really weird, but you’d have to have some kind of name badge or card that says, ‘I’ve been tested, and I’m not positive,’ ” he said.
Businesses, for their part, are trying to assuage this sense of anxiety. Equinox, the high-end fitness chain, has convened its own task force focused on working with medical experts to come up with a public health plan that it says goes beyond the mandatory requirements for health organizations.
“Before we closed our clubs we introduced enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and for reopening, we are taking even further steps to extensively research and implement safety precautions that limit contact and take our top-rated cleaning protocols to the highest level,” Harvey Spevak, Equinox Group’s executive chairman, said in a statement.
Gary Clift, owner of Clift Buick GMC in Adrian, Mich., is also working to overhaul his business model. “I don’t think you’re just going to wake up on May 1 and just go back to your old style,” he said. “The corona thing is going to be out there for a long time, and people are not just going to go back to how they do business.”
Clift said he initially had to lay off all of his sales staff but is now starting to rehire as he changes his dealership’s approach. “The way we do service now is I call people up and say, ‘Do you need an oil change? Okay, great, I’ll come pick up your car, do the oil change and bring it back to you.’ ”
Amid the changing pandemic mentality, Fleischer is cautiously optimistic that the nation may slowly revert to its previous rhythms.
“There was a cancellation psychology around the country in March — if you’re not canceling, there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “I suspect in May or June there will be an opening psychology — so if you’re not opening, what’s wrong with you?”
Jeff Stein contributed to this report.