It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than a year now that we’ve been living under this cloud of a global pandemic.
[caption id="attachment_203722" align="alignright" width="320"] Delaware Business Times Editor Jacob Owens[/caption]
I can recall sitting in our Wilmington-area offices on March 11, 2020, and seeing the headline pop up on my phone: “NBA suspends season.” It was really that moment when I realized this was going to be a very different year. A billion-dollar operation like professional sports doesn’t shut down over one positive case of a virus unless it’s really bad.That day was also coincidentally when Delaware recorded its first case of the coronavirus, a University of Delaware professor who was believed to have contracted it at a professional conference in New Jersey a few weeks prior. For nearly all of March, we had seen the intermittent updates about one-off Delaware cases that came back negative, perhaps naively creating a sense that the worst effect of this “pandemic” would be the shortage of hand sanitizer and toilet paper.I don’t know why I too was lulled into believing that we would be immune. The Delaware Business Times published one of the earliest stories, on Feb. 21, 2020, about the economic havoc the virus would play on the First State, even if it stayed overseas. I can admit that I, like many, believed that when we closed up for the day on March 12 that we would be back in a week or two – maybe a month at most.But that wasn’t to be. Except for an occasional trip back to the office for archive records, a break in the routine or to see a few colleagues for choice meetings, I’ve been cooped up in my home office ever since. Tens of thousands of residents able to work remotely have experienced the same life, confronted with different daily challenges on top, like childcare and remote education.It’s often a bit depressing to remember the lives we led pre-COVID, traveling and dining without concern, seeing friends without asking their health status, and enjoying holidays with family in person rather than gathered around a Zoom table. Despite the loss of these small freedoms, however, I feel lucky.Delaware’s small business owners have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout spurred by government restrictions meant to stem the virus’s spread.The state’s restaurant industry, which employs thousands, suffered an estimated $1.2 billion loss in sales over the past year, according to the Delaware Restaurant Association. Many smaller operations from Wilmington to Rehoboth Beach and places between closed their doors rather than trying to limp along to an uncertain future.
[caption id="attachment_197064" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk | Photo by Alvin Matthews[/caption]
Their struggles led to an enormous swell of unemployment claims early in the pandemic, and while some have been able to return to work, the hospitality industry had 11,400 fewer jobs in December 2020 than it did in December 2019. More than 25,000 Delawareans remained out of work in December, the last month that data is currently available, and the state’s labor force, or those actively looking for work, has fallen for months too.According to March data from the state Department of Labor, more than 27,000 residents are still collecting unemployment benefits and 1,700 filed a first-time claim in the week of March 6. Those benefits, along with added federal payments through the pandemic, have helped people keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, but most are not spending lavishly.It’s important for us to keep our small businesses in mind as the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package begins to pump cash into our communities again. Decades of economic studies have shown that giving low- and middle-income families cash tends to create consumer spending, whether that’s finally replacing a broken dishwasher, taking a day trip vacation, or paying off some accrued debt.In turn, such consumer spending is what convinces employers to add shifts for production or service, thereby creating new economic opportunities through increased wages and subsequent spending.As millions of dollars begin hitting our streets in the coming weeks though, where will that spending go? With Delaware’s restaurants and small business retailers still limited to half their capacity, it’s likely that more of that stimulus will head once again to Big Box brands and fast-food restaurants than our smallest businesses that really need the cash.Southern states like Texas and Mississippi have chosen to throw open their gates, repealing capacity restrictions and the mandate to wear a mask in public. Meanwhile, neighboring Maryland has chosen to end its capacity restrictions while continuing to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing.With hospitalizations at their lowest point in months and new positive cases trending downward combined with the increasing number of most at-risk individuals getting vaccinated and the more than 85,000 people who likely already have some immunity after contracting the disease, the light at the end of our tunnel is growing brighter.President Biden’s pledge to get vaccines into the hands of any American who wants one by the end of May, coupled with several large federal purchases of upcoming vaccine doses, should give us a degree of confidence that the worst is behind us.We shouldn’t strive headlong into the second year of our pandemic foolhardily, waiving preventative measures like mask-wearing and social distancing, but I do think Delaware needs to set a course for reopening to ensure the help flows to our businesses before they miss the boat again.
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