MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today marks the end of the federal government's social distancing guidelines. President Trump says it'll now be up to states to take the lead.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want the governors to call those shots. If we see something that we don't like or that's bad or that's unsafe, we'll stop it immediately, OK?
KELLY: Tomorrow, we'll see movie theaters, restaurants and malls opening in Texas. But other states are taking their time. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom announced today he is closing some of the state's most iconic beaches in Orange County after crowds packed onto the sand last weekend.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GAVIN NEWSOM: We're going to have a temporary pause on the beaches down there - state, local beaches. We got to make sure we get this right. Why undo all the great progress?
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Meanwhile, waves of layoffs are eating away at the U.S. economy that was booming just a couple of months ago. The first round hit waiters, hotel workers, flight attendants. Then came retail workers and builders, followed by lawyers, architects, business analysts. Now local government employees are being furloughed, even police and firefighters, because all those other businesses have stopped producing tax revenues. In just six weeks, more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment.
To talk more about where the country is in this moment, NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce are both with us. Good to have you back.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hello.
SHAPIRO: Scott, let's start with the economic picture. Unemployment claims have become just one more grim way of measuring this pandemic, along with the number of infections and deaths. Am I right to say that the unemployment curve is taking a long time to flatten out?
HORSLEY: It is. The report the Labor Department issued this morning show that another 3.8 million people filed for unemployment last week. That is down from the week before, but it is still really high by historical standards. And those 30 million unemployment claims you mentioned since the middle of March, that represents about 1 out of every 5 people who had a job back in February.
In some of the hardest hit states, like Nevada, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, the misery ratio is even higher. In those states, a quarter of the workforce or more has filed for unemployment. You know, just a couple of months ago, we had what looked like a rock-solid economy. Now it's looking more and more like a fragile sandcastle.
SHAPIRO: And who is most affected by these layoffs?
HORSLEY: It's been really wide-ranging. The first rounds were in tourism and hospitality, but it has rippled out through retail, all kinds of service industries, including health care. A reminder that a lot of doctors and dentists offices are still closed. Anything that requires you to get up close and personal with somebody has probably suffered in this climate. And, of course, with oil prices tanking, you've seen cuts in that industry. And now Boeing just announced it's going to cut more than 14,000 jobs, or about 10% of its workforce. Of course, demand for jet airplanes has pretty much dried up. And that has just worsened the challenges Boeing was already facing with its troubled 737 Max aircraft.
We also know from an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. this week that the job cuts and pay cuts have fallen hardest on less educated workers, black and brown workers, workers who make less than $50,000 and younger workers.
SHAPIRO: Nell, I want to turn to you to talk about those beach closures in California. As we mentioned, Governor Newsom announced today he's closing some Southern California beaches after crowds there last weekend. But this is a controversial idea, so what does the science tell us about the risk of catching the coronavirus when you're outside in a place like a beach?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. So to ask that question, I contacted a few scientists today who study how viruses can move through the air. I mean, Linsey Marr is at Virginia Tech, and she told me about one study that just came out from China. It looked at where infected people got exposed to this coronavirus. It looked at a lot of people - over 7,000.
LINSEY MARR: And out of over 7,000 cases that they looked at, they were able to identify only two where the transmission occurred outdoors in a conversation between two people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So that suggests the indoors, not outside, is where the vast majority of transmission actually happens.
SHAPIRO: I know there's been so much confusion about this. Is there scientific evidence that this virus can spread through the air?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, there are some clues that it might be possible in some situations, especially in places where there's poor ventilation. For example, there've been studies from hospitals showing that genetic material from the virus can be found suspended in the air, like in patients' bathrooms. Whether that represents actual viruses that could make people sick, and if so, how much you'd have to breathe in to get ill, I mean, that's something scientists have been actively investigating.
SHAPIRO: So if people are going to go to beaches, should they pack masks along with their sunscreen?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I asked Josh Santarpia at the University of Nebraska Medical Center specifically about beaches today. And he told me there's a lot there at the beach that would work against the virus. You've got the breeze, the sunlight, the humidity, the heat.
JOSH SANTARPIA: I mean, my honest opinion is that, you know, you're probably safer outside than inside.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, assuming the beach is not super packed. He says, don't be foolish and crowd close together. You know, but if you can stay six to 10 feet apart, you know, he thinks is going outside is just generally good for your mental health.
SHAPIRO: OK, well, this opening up has economic implications. Scott, as states begin to relax their stay-at-home orders and more businesses are allowed to reopen, does that mean more people will go back to work and these unemployment numbers may start to decline?
HORSLEY: It does mean that will happen eventually. But it's going to take some time. We got numbers on consumer spending for march this morning from the Commerce Department, and it was the sharpest decline in consumer spending in history. April is likely to be even worse. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell says the drop in consumer spending is a big part of what is driving these very steep job losses. And he does offer some hope that it will turn around at some point.
JEROME POWELL: Sometime fairly soon here, and probably gradually and at different paces at different parts of the country, we'll see the social distancing measures rolled back. People will begin to spend more money. It's really - consumer spending has fallen precipitously. And once that starts to happen, people will get hired back, and unemployment will go back down.
HORSLEY: But the Fed chairman cautions that's not going to happen overnight. I mean, you know, government relaxing stay-at-home orders is one thing, but it's obviously going to take time for both businesses and consumers to feel confident enough to start spending freely again. And that's when you'll see more people going back to work.
SHAPIRO: And I guess the big question is even once people are spending freely, do businesses return that have been shut down for a month, or will some of them just be gone forever?
HORSLEY: Right. You know, a lot of the government assistance programs have been intended to sort of be a life preserver for these businesses, as well as consumers, to just keep them afloat as long as it takes to get to the other side. For some, that does mean they'll have an opportunity to reopen when demand comes back and when people feel safe and confident about going back out shopping. But some are just not going to make it that long, and that's going to do lasting damage to the economy.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. Glad to talk with you both.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.