The huddled masses are huddling at home until an easing of the extreme temperatures that have been colder in some parts of the country than at the South Pole.
"We think that the problem will be short-lived, but we estimate it will cost about $5 billion because of the sheer size of the population affected — about 200 million people in the eastern two-thirds of the country," said Evan Gold, senior vice president at business weather intelligence company Planalytics.
He said the cold's impact would be apparent in lost productivity, lack of consumer spending and higher heating bills. "A similar situation in 2010 lasted a week, with back-to-back storms with snow and ice. We calculated that cost $25 billion to $30 billion.
"But that one lingered. This one is just very cold, so it should be a two- or three-day event," he said.
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Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for IHS Global, said the cold spell would at most reduce GDP growth by 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent in the first quarter, "and it will probably all be gained back in the second quarter.
"There is no question there will be winners and losers," he said, noting companies like airlines and restaurants will be affected by customers staying at home. About 7,000 flights total were canceled Monday and Tuesday. Amtrak operated a restricted service in the Northeast.
Chris Wadaga, co-owner of Wild Blue Frozen Yogurt in Grand Haven, Mich., where it was a brisk 10 degrees Tuesday, mulled closing because the schools were shuttered.
"We decided to just open anyway and I've had maybe three customers today so far," she said. One of those was a woman who had received a Christmas gift card, so she stopped by only because she was due a free yogurt, she said.
"We're a frozen yogurt store and people don't want to go out and have frozen yogurt at this time," said Wadaga, who counted 50 customers on Monday — down from an average of 200.
Goldman Sachs analyst Kris Dawsey said the cold weather could even affect this Friday's jobs report. Construction employment, for example, is hurt by cold weather. December auto sales — which came in weaker than expected — may have been another victim of the temperature, he said.
"We expect that colder-than-normal weather during the survey period for the December payroll report probably pushed employment growth below its recent trend," he wrote, noting his preliminary forecast is for a 175,000 gain in total payrolls to be released this Friday.