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Editorial: We must remain focused on the pandemic

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It’s been a wild start to 2021, as Democrats somewhat surprisingly won full control of the federal government only to see chaos erupt at the U.S. Capitol and the start of an unprecedented second impeachment of a sitting president.

Delaware Business Times Editor Jacob Owens

Here in the First State, we’ve been lucky to largely avoid the rancor that has enveloped the nation’s capital or several other states around the country, but the 151st Delaware General Assembly has kicked off with some surprising debate of tax increases. That conversation may or may not progress, although Democrats in Dover do hold a supermajority for two years that would make passing controversial measures a bit easier.

As I sit and think about our current predicament, however, I’m struck by the realization that the conversations taking place in our state and nation’s capital are not likely those to carry a lot of weight at dinner tables across America right now. Don’t get me wrong, I think what occurred in Washington was a tragedy and our federal lawmakers should be able to fulfill their duties free from threats and harassment.

Every moment that is spent discussing impeachment, big tech, and whatever else though, leaves fewer minutes to discuss the desperate need to advance COVID-19 vaccination efforts, plan for the recovery of an economy that is increasingly leaving the most-vulnerable on the wayside, and determining how best to get our children learning in the most normal environment possible again. Those three things should be the only topics on the lips of our leaders and legislators right now, and yet we seem to be discussing everything else.

I recently reconnected with Bob Perkins, chairman of the Delaware Business Roundtable, a non-partisan, volunteer consortium of CEOs whose companies collectively employ over 75,000 people in Delaware, and he shared a similar sentiment.

“There are things that need to be dealt with, urgently and boldly, and Delaware is just the kind of a place where that kind of leadership would make a difference,” he told me. “We look for our state leaders to try to focus on the things that are important, work collaboratively and get Delaware through this tough period.”

We’re not alone in that thought, as reporting indicates that Delaware’s own President-elect Joe Biden is growing anxious at the need to address the pandemic more fully, after it has frankly fallen out of much of the news cycle almost a year after it started.

Biden was set to announce his trillion-dollar spending proposals after we headed to press Jan. 14, but Brian Deese, the incoming director of the National Economic Council, told the Reuters Next conference days before that “the president-elect feels that we need to move aggressively on both rescue and recovery.”

Among the proposals reported by the New York Times to be included in Biden’s plan were additional direct stimulus payments of $1,400 – meeting the $2,000 mark abandoned by President Trump after Republican rebuffs in December, and aid to small businesses and local and state governments. An extension of supplemental federal unemployment benefits, which are set to expire in March for many workers, and more help for renters were also on the table, the NYT reported.

With Delaware reporting more than 24,000 workers unemployed in November along with a continuously shrinking labor force, and expectations that December’s job report would continue to see declines, state leaders need to remain focused on supporting those who have been left behind. The steepest losses, through no fault of their own, have come in the industry sectors that don’t pay six-figure wages.

Biden is also reportedly seeking enough money to allow most schools to open, in an effort to increase labor force participation. “We need to get the schools open so that parents, and particularly women, who are being disproportionately hurt in this economy, can get back to work,” Deese said.

That’s a point that both Perkins and I also agreed on. Employers can announce that offices in downtown Wilmington, Philadelphia or New York will reopen tomorrow, but if children are still conducting remote learning from home or childcare centers haven’t been able to reopen, then workers will have no choice but to remain home.

Anyone who has had to work remotely these last eight or so months with a child at home knows the challenges that present. Companies may have found that workers are just as productive working from home through the pandemic, but it doesn’t mean that the practice is sustainable forever. Time is much more chaotic than linear, with work often being done outside of the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. period in order to fulfill other family responsibilities, leading to stress and anxiety.

With the constant emotional rollercoaster we’ve been riding this past year, we need to keep our eye on the end of the tunnel. What can we do now to get to that light faster? What program or investment can we make to ease someone’s burden either now or after we exit the COVID tunnel? What can we do to prepare in case this awful scenario occurs again?

“If there were ever a time when you want to make big, bold plays, big investments in areas that will really move the state forward, this is a great time to do that,” Perkins said.

I agree, and with Dover expected to be working with a budget surplus this year, I hope our legislators keep their focus on the same goal.

By Jacob Owens

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