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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Top CEOs, in private conversations and pleas to President Trump, are warning of economic catastrophe if America doesn't begin planning for a phased return to work as soon as May, corporate leaders tell Axios.

Why it matters: The CEOs say massive numbers of companies, big and small, could go under if business and government don't start urgent talks about ways groups of workers can return.

  • Several of these leaders told us they want to have a hard national conversation about tradeoffs involved in any widespread lockdowns beyond the middle of next month.
  • They know most wouldn't return until June or later, but fear a lack of urgency on many going back sooner.
  • They realize it sounds callous to talk about work when people are scared of death, but believe it's an urgent debate the nation needs. Several are debating going public with this concern, but fear the optics and timing look discordant.

A return to work might start by geography, demography or type of work.

  • The plan likely would include guidelines about use of gloves and masks.
  • It would also err on the side of people who had the virus and healed, as well as those who pass instant antibody tests.

Reality check: Large parts of the South and central U.S. may not hit their peak until May.

  • Anthony Fauci said last week: "I think if we get to the part of the curve ... when it goes down to essentially no new cases, no deaths at a period of time, I think it makes sense that you’re going to have to relax social distancing."

Gary Cohn, the first White House economic adviser under Trump, told us that startup founders and CEOs are pleading privately: "We just need a realistic timeframe, and we need to talk honestly about it so we can tell our employees."

  • "There are a lot of conversations going on: At what point does a business become unrecoverable?" Cohn said.
  • "Business owners are asking: 'At what point do I just lay my people off and shut down and give the landlord the key?'"
  • "Businesses worry that their employees will be forced to jump at the first job offer, so they can't count on them to come back."

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, agreed it's a hot topic of private chats:

  • "A lot of people are concerned," he said Friday at an Axios virtual event.
  • But he said he'll "err on the side of safety, every single time."

Cohn, former president and COO of Goldman Sachs, said entrepreneurs and business titans also worry about the depression and addiction issues that have accompanied past economic downturns:

  • "No one wants to talk about this, but can you even get workers back who aren't so addicted or depressed they can actually function?"

What's next: Look for business groups to begin to broach these topics publicly in the next few weeks.

  • "If this goes on too long, the fear builds more and more," a top executive of a global company told us. "We need to lay the groundwork for the fear to ebb."
  • As Bloomberg put it, some investors are "willing to risk some horrors to avoid others."

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

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Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Technology

3D printing's next act: big metal objects

Chief Scientist Andy Bayramian makes modifications to the laser system on Seurat's 3D metal printer. Photo courtesy of Seurat Technologies.

A new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionize the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of mass manufacturing.

Why it matters: 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — has been used since the 1980s to make small plastic parts and prototypes. Metal printing is newer, and the challenge has been figuring out how to make things like large car parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods.

Updated 3 hours ago - Technology

Mayors see cryptocurrency as a way to address income inequality

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At the U.S. Conference of Mayors' meeting in D.C. this week, there's buzz around the idea of giving cryptocurrency accounts to low-income people.

Why it matters: Cities have been experimenting with newfangled ways to address income inequality — like guaranteed income programs — and the latest wave of trials could involve paying benefits or dividends in bitcoin, stablecoin or other digital currencies.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Fauci: "Confident" Omicron cases will peak in February
  2. Vaccines: Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker