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The new challenges businesses may face in a world changed by COVID-19

When businesses and organizations resume activity after COVID-19, it will be in a changed economic landscape. Suzanne Clark is president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose 3 million members include all sectors, geographies and sizes. She is planning how they will tackle post-coronavirus challenges, including social distancing and health requirements, and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now let's hear from that leading voice in business about how and whether some economic activity should resume again and under what conditions.

    Suzanne Clark is the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's a group with some three million members across all sectors of the economy. She presented a gradual plan to her members for returning to work, but it includes many issues that have yet to be resolved.

    Suzanne Clark, thank you very much for talking with us today.

    Tell us — I mean, as you think about all this, how big a challenge is the country facing, the private sector? I mean, it's not as simple as turning on a light switch, is it?

  • Suzanne Clark:

    No. No, it isn't.

    Thank you for having me today.

    We sit in a unique vantage point, because our members represent all sectors and all sizes and all geographies. And the idea of getting back to work, of getting back the life is so important to them.

    So we know that there are experts, public officials, medical experts talking about when it's safe to get back to work. But we think that our job is to help business leaders to begin the plan for how to get back to work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Your memo that you sent out to your members, it starts out by saying that the return to work will be — quote — "gradual, phased-in, and will vary by several factors."

    What are the factors?

  • Suzanne Clark:

    Well, I think you have hit on them tonight on the show, which are that different geographies have been hit in different ways. Different sectors will find it easier to ramp up than others.

    And it ranges from everything you have talked about, from testing and tracing to the availability of equipment, such as masks and thermometers and training on that equipment, all the way through child care and transit.

    This is this unprecedented crisis in this country. And there's no playbook to take off the shelf and just execute. So it's why it's so important that we plan now, so that, when it's time to go back to work, people are really ready.

    We want to help both government leaders and business leaders anticipate what new restrictions, what new equipment, what new risks are out there, so that they can really be ready.

    You can't underestimate what a job means to a family or to a community. And once we return to health, we need to be ready to return to work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when you think about things like — and you include this in the memo — social distancing, and when you think about having protective equipment, which may still be necessary months from now, like masks and perhaps other paraphernalia as well, are businesses prepared to do these things that you're — that you're talking about?

  • Suzanne Clark:

    You know, imagine being a small business owner right now, and not only having the financial threat and fear that you have in your community, but also now trying to tackle all kinds of new learning, not only new acquisition of equipment, but how to use it and how to train for it.

    And, again, it's just so unprecedented, that we have got to figure out, in a world that's going to have imperfect information — like, these CEOs are not going to be in a situation where they have got perfect equipment, perfect information, and perfect training.

    How can we help them take the right kind of risk, because it will be a little bit of a risk, right? When will people feel safe going into their businesses to work or as a customer? And how can we help that process along?

    And I think a lot of that will happen at the local community level.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking you because, I mean, for example, you think about a business, whether it's a hardware store or a restaurant. They're not used to being in the business of asking people to take their temperature, for example, when they walk in the door, or making sure — I guess you could ask people to wear a face mask.

    But these are not the kinds of things we normally expect when we go out to a store, for example.

  • Suzanne Clark:

    No, that's exactly right.

    And, in fact, we have kind of trained businesses to do the opposite, because of concerns on health care privacy, or on discrimination, or different types of liability.

    And so this is a real gray area that we're all going to have to confront. And this gets back to our goal, which is, what can we anticipate in advance, so that we can try to find any kind of ground, firm ground, for CEOs to stand on, whether it's a sole proprietor or all the way up to really big companies?

    And I thought the governor made a good point a minute ago, when he talked about businesses that have been deemed essential and how they are working.

    We talk about a return to work, but a number of people didn't leave work. What can be learned from the experiment that they have already been through?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Suzanne Clark, the other thing is, who pays for this?

    I mean, some of these businesses are going to be coming back. They're going to be turning the lights back on, but with a much tighter payroll situation. How are you — I mean, how do you look at that question?

  • Suzanne Clark:

    It's really complicated. How is it all going to be paid for?

    One of the things that we have been looking at, for example, goes back to child care. If you're having social distancing, so you can accept fewer children or you need more adults, does that mean less revenue across more expenses?

    So, how do you make that stretch? And I think it's going to require more aid. I think it's going to require, both at the federal level and at the state level, some assistance.

    We know that some businesses will get back to work faster than others. It may be a while before people are comfortable going into big, crowded places again. So, businesses that rely on mass numbers of people might need more aid and more assistance.

    But I have to say, there's a bit of optimism too, right? We're seeing a type of resilience and a coming together in a community, that it's really a beautiful thing, I think, for this country.

    So, if Mr. Rogers needs to stay look for the helpers, I think we're also looking for the innovators, the scientists, the doctors, but also the business leaders, and how they can innovate. Whenever there's a great time of disruption, there's also a big period of innovation.

    I was lucky. Yesterday, I interviewed a Harvard epidemiologist who said, one of the things about getting through this surge and this peak is, it will give the doctors and scientists a minute to look at the data and learn from it.

    What did they see? Were children transmitting the disease? What do the immunities look like, et cetera? And that gives me hope that there's more learning and maybe quicker learning to come.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question about it.

    Hopefully, we're all going to be learning a lot from this experience.

    Suzanne Clark with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, thank you.

  • Suzanne Clark:

    Thank you very much.

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