CEOs Likely Instilled Caution In President’s Reopening

Recovery-panel chiefs' unexpected warning is heeded as president outlines a gradual, three-phase plan for opening the economy.

President Trump looks on as Dr. Deborah Birx outlines three-phase plan to reopen.

President Donald Trump got one message loud and clear on Wednesday from many of the dozens of CEOs whom he named to his recovery panels: Don’t reopen the economy in a way that will risk a future resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And on Thursday, the chiefs’ collective warning likely played a key role in the president’s announcement of an economic-reopening plan that seemed to stop significantly short of his own consistently expressed ambitions for a quick return to normality. Trump’s new plan envisions three phases to restoring economic activity gradually, and largely at the discretion of each state’s governor, not via presidential edict.

Epidemiologists and governors have begun to pivot from concerns about the peak of the pandemic to newly gathering worries about a potential resurgence of infections in the coming months if social distancing breaks down.

This was a worry that CEOs presumably could have left to the medical experts and politicians, as business leaders confront cratering demand for their companies’ products and services, crimped supply chains, millions of workers left jobless and millions of others trying to be productive while stranded at home. The president likely expected support for speedy return to normalcy when he reached out to dozens of company chiefs, most of them high-profile leaders, in a variety of industries as well as specifically heads of teams and other entities in major American sports.

But when he canvassed them in phone calls and teleconferences on Wednesday, what Trump heard from many CEOs were their own expressions of caution about not wanting to restart the economy vigorously if that step would simply lead to a new outbreak of COVID-19 infections down the road.

Just as important, chiefs told him, was the fact that their customers, employees and suppliers were unlikely to burst forth from their homes and resume anything close to normal economic activity as long as they reasonably feared catching the coronavirus with the resumption of social contact. In fact, some CEOs told the president that they wanted to see drastically stepped-up testing for COVID-19 exposure and for antibodies before they could recommend the kind of reopening that Trump was hoping for.

“Resurgence could kill a business,” Mark Cuban, a tech billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and a member of one of Trump’s panels, told the president, he said on Fox News.

Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of the Jimmy John’s sandwich chain and another panel member, said on the TV network that the recovery would have to proceed in a series of “different strokes” for parts of the country that varied according to the severity of their outbreaks.

Or, as search firm Korn Ferry put it in a new blog post, “While any improvement is welcome, most organizations realize they’re probably not prepared for a quick comeback. Indeed, the list of challenges is long: figuring out if the supply chain is functioning, determining customer demand, creating a sanitary work environment, and teaching everyone — leaders included — to change their behaviors.

“All of this is just massively complicated,” said Yannick Binvel, president of Korn Ferry’s industrial market practice.