When it comes to predicting or limiting the near-term wreckage that COVID-19 will visit upon the U.S., economists and policy makers can do little to help.

What happens after the virus passes is a different story. The strength or weakness of the country’s rebound, whenever that comes, will be heavily influenced by actions taken today and over the coming months.

Economists pointed to three crucial areas they say will matter most. For one, the speed with which small and mid-sized business aid finds its mark. A second, the level of support for states and cities later this year. And third, something -- anything -- to restore public confidence in getting back to life, and business, as usual.

A clean, so-called V-shaped recovery may be unrealistic, but effective steps on each of those fronts could help make the difference between an energetic bounce-back and a recession that is long-lasting, or even catastrophic.

“Where we are headed in the long run can be shaped, with unusual effectiveness, by policy decisions that are happening right now,” said Kartik Athreya, director of research at the Richmond Fed.

The unprecedented nature of the current contraction makes it almost impossible for forecasters to tell us how bad it’s going to get. Their models, after all, rely heavily on documented historical experience. No surprise then that forecasts span an eye-popping range. Estimates for second-quarter annualized GDP growth submitted to Bloomberg since April 10 range from -65% to 0.4%.

Economists are even more powerless when it comes to issuing any prescription for improving the short-term outlook. With public health the priority, policy is focused on temporarily smothering activity that drives whole sectors of commerce.

To its credit, the federal government has made significant stimulus available. Congress in late March appropriated more than $2 trillion to beef up unemployment benefits, send direct aid to lower and middle-income households, offer grants to small businesses and provide bailouts for airlines and other big firms. President Donald Trump swiftly signed the legislation into law.

Even more funding for small businesses is currently being discussed by lawmakers. The Federal Reserve has also announced a barrage of new emergency lending programs capable of mobilizing trillions more.

But what’s desperately needed now is the rapid disbursement of cash. And so far, more than three weeks after the first stay-at-home orders were issued, very little money has been delivered.

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