It's no secret that Main Street businesses, which commune directly with the public, have been hammered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Although new business applications have also soared since March, presumably most with adapted business models, that's no comfort to the more than 100,000 small businesses listed on Yelp that have shuttered, a fate that awaits many more firms as the current "third wave" rolls through America.
Main Street will stop bleeding only when the virus is brought under control to the point that customers and workers no longer need to wear masks and social distance. But that will happen only when a truly safe and effective vaccine is developed, widely available, and almost universally taken so that the population reaches a point of true herd immunity.
The latest study from the U.K. showing that antibody immunity wears off only lends further credence to the strong medical consensus against the variation of herd immunity" that the Trump administration apparently is pursuing. In the absence of a safe and effective vaccine, if we simply "let 'er rip," hundreds of thousands, if not more, Americans will die needlessly. And the fear of that outcome--or "mass murder" in the words of prominent HIV/AIDs scientist and entrepreneur William Haseltine--will keep customers out of Main Street stores even if federal, state, and local authorities say they can remain open.
How many people must take the approved vaccines for "normal" to return? Infectious disease experts tell us about 60 percent of the population must be made immune through the vaccine. If the approved vaccines are 75 percent effective--well above the 50 percent threshold required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and thus optimistic--that means 80 percent of Americans must get the vaccine.
Americans are a long way from that number, so far. In the last several months, the percentage of Americans willing to be vaccinated has plummeted, from roughly two thirds in mid-August to well below 50 percent, according to a recent poll. President Trump has contributed to the public's wariness of even an approved vaccine by insisting, against all evidence, that one would be ready in time for the election--now clearly impossible.
So, how, if at all, will the country get to an 80 percent vaccination rate? Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, doesn't think the government will force people to be vaccinated, although Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden suggested during his October 16 town hall that if the vaccine were highly effective--the "gold standard"--he would be inclined to do so.
Still, many scientists question whether a safe vaccine will be close to that standard, at least initially, which means that the U.S. is likely to be well short of the vaccination rate we'll need to get back to normal. Even if Biden--the only one of the two candidates who has taken the virus seriously and has long had concrete plans at least for mitigating it--wins the race, he will likely face stiff resistance to vaccinations from Trump supporters.
Conversely, if Trump wins, it isn't likely that that those who refuse even to wear masks will take the more intrusive step of getting vaccinated. Many Democrats, meanwhile, are among those who have lost faith in the FDA because of Trump's constant anti-science (and more recently, anti-Fauci) critiques.
That leaves only one other option: Pay people to take the vaccine. I floated this idea in mid-August: Pay $1,000 per person-- $200 at the time of the vaccine and the $800 balance once the nation reaches true herd immunity. The split will encourage people to persuade their friends, co-workers, and family members to get vaccinated, too. Among those who have endorsed the idea is Harvard's Greg Mankiw, former chairman of George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.
The idea has the added benefit of serving as a stimulus, as extra money in people's pockets may get spent at Main Street shops.
Entrepreneurs who want their businesses to stay afloat should be among the strongest advocates of vaccinations, along with any parent or grandparent who wants life--including school, sports, and family visits--to return.
Finally, once masks and social distancing are no longer necessary, the government should establish a subsidized loan program to finance any profitable entrepreneurs who had to close their doors because of the pandemic. Part of getting back to normal is being able to frequent the restaurants and shops on Main Street. National policy should help make that possible.