WASHINGTON – Government relief checks began arriving in Americans’ bank accounts as the economic damage to the U.S. from the coronavirus piled up Wednesday and sluggish sales at reopened stores in Europe and China made it clear that business won’t necessarily bounce right back when the crisis eases.
With lockdowns and other restrictions bringing factories to a shuddering halt, American industrial output shriveled in March, registering its biggest decline since the U.S. demobilized in 1946 at the end of World War II. And retail sales fell by an unprecedented 8.7%, with April expected to be far worse.
The world’s biggest economy began issuing one-time payments this week to tens of millions of people as part of its $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, with adults receiving up to $1,200 each and $500 per child to help them pay the rent or cover other bills. The checks will be directly deposited into bank accounts or mailed to households, depending on how they filed their tax returns.
Among those who received a check was Jacqueline Gonzalez, a 32-year-old single mother who was laid off from her job as a bartender at a sports bar and lives with her mom, a teacher, in Miami Lakes, Florida. Gonzalez paid her car insurance and gave her mother $500 for rent. She has signed up for food stamps.
“There is no other form of income for us right now. We have no other choice. We can’t work from home,” she said. “We’re just sitting here. Bills are racking up.”
In an unprecedented move, President Donald Trump’s name will be printed on the checks.
Meanwhile, the first steps in lifting the economically crippling restrictions in other parts of the world are running into resistance, with shoppers and other customers staying away from the reopened businesses and workers afraid the newly restored freedoms could put their health at risk.
In China, millions are still wary of spending much or even going out. Some cities have resorted to handing out shopping vouchers and trying to reassure consumers by showing officials in state media eating in restaurants.
“I put off plans to change cars and spend almost nothing on eating out or entertainment,” said Zhang Hu, a truck salesman in Zhengzhou who has gone back to work but has seen his income plummet because few people buying 20-ton rigs. “I have no idea when the situation will turn better.”
In Austria, Marie Froehlich, who owns a clothing store in Vienna, said her staff was happy to get back to work after weeks of being cooped up at home. But with her business dependent largely on tourism, which has dried up amid the travel restrictions, she expects it will take months to return to normal.
“Until then, we are in crisis mode,” she said.
The scene was similar in hard-hit Italy, where the streets of Rome were largely deserted despite an easing of restrictions this week that allowed some stores to reopen.
Worldwide, deaths have topped 130,000 and confirmed infections have surpassed 2 million, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. The figures understate the true size of the crisis, in part because of limited testing, different ways of counting the dead, and concealment by some governments
The U.S. has reported approximately 27,000 deaths — the highest in the world — and over 600,000 confirmed infections, by Johns Hopkins’ count. Still, the nightmare scenarios projecting a far greater number of deaths and hospitalizations have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.