OK. Now what? That’s the question for the economists who assemble every two years to provide the state with an idea of what to expect over the next biennium.

Their answer is very important. Their forecast is used to develop Maine’s revenue forecast, which is used to build a balanced state budget. But while the economists can usually offer fairly accurate guesses about future jobs, home prices and the effects of industry trends, this year they are also asking a lot of questions, mostly having to do with the coronavirus pandemic, which has put the national economy into a recession unlike anything anyone now living has ever seen.

Before they can map out the next few years, they’d like to know: How much longer will the pandemic last? Will it get worse over the winter? When will there be a vaccine, and how many people will take it?

These sound more like public health questions than economic ones, and that’s the point. We are in a recession caused by a public health emergency, and the economy will not fully recover until we have contained the spread of COVID.

The state’s unemployment rate is just over 6 percent, about twice what it was in March. But the recession has not hit every sector equally, and it has quirks that make it different from any of the other ones we have experienced. New construction is usually one of the first industries to shed jobs and the last to rehire. But in this recession construction has taken a very light hit, and it has recovered practically to pre-COVID levels.

But restaurants and hotels, which typically fare well in recessions, have been crushed this time. While there was some recovery during the summer and fall, these “high touch” businesses, which rely on a lot of face-to-face contact, are a long way from regaining their economic health.

So that’s why it’s a mistake to look at economic problems independently of the public health crisis. And it’s wrong to blame government policies and not the virus for the downturn.

Most of Maine’s economy is open now and infection rates are low, as a result of good policy interventions last spring and good luck. But even if cases climb this winter, we are unlikely to see the kinds of imposed closures that we saw in the spring.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a recent interview that what we’ve learned about the way the virus is spread allows the economy to operate safely.

“Last March and April we knew very little about this disease, and that led to a shelter-in-place mentality. We needed to be there then, but we’re not there now,” Shah told the Scientific American.

Like the economic panel, we won’t know when the economy will bounce back until we know what’s going to happen with the virus. But we do know that the best way to keep the pandemic under control is following the same rules that we’ve been hearing for the last seven months – wear a mask in public, wash your hands frequently and avoid crowded spaces, especially indoors.

We can’t predict what’s going to happen next,  but we can all take actions to make a better future possible.

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