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DBT Editorial: Carney needs to give small business a better chance for survival

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“If we don’t start trusting our children, how will they ever become trustworthy?”

-John Lithgow, Footloose (1984)

We don’t normally open the newspaper with an editorial, but we want to demonstrate our support for small businesses that have become increasingly frustrated because they believe that Gov. John Carney views them as children who can’t be trusted.

In many cases, they don’t believe that he’s followed through on his promise, made during his initial coronavirus press conference on March 11, to “keep citizens safe in the least restrictive way possible” – at least not as it relates to Delaware businesses.

If you’re a small hardware store owner, your doors are locked but Home Depot and Lowe’s are open for business.

If you’re a hotel, you have to turn away leisure travelers while the hotel down the street (but just across the Maryland state line) happily accepts the business. Unless, of course, you take the attitude that you’re not a cop and you’ll trust guests carrying beach gear who say they’re in town on business.

If you’re a boutique clothing store that was first forced to close, then was allowed curbside and appointment-only service, only to see Walmart celebrate record first quarter earnings, you’re not exactly doing cartwheels when faced with being limited to 30% occupancy on June 1.

We wholeheartedly believe in the governor’s mantra of “flatten the curve.” But we believe that mission should not include flattening the businesses of Delawareans, some of which will not see 2021.

The governor’s key metric for reopening – hospitalization rates – has fallen from a high of 337 on April 27 to 220 statewide on May 19 (including just 51 in the Sussex County hot zone) – and we attribute that to expanded testing and education throughout the state. But we’re scratching our heads and wondering whether the real key decision metric is the strong 73% of Delawareans who approve of the governor’s handling of the pandemic, according to a Survey Monkey poll.

We suspect that the governor sees small business owners as part of the 27%, so picking up the pace really isn’t that big a deal. Maybe he thinks the crumbs he’s giving us are sufficient. As you’ll read on page 13, he doesn’t see it that way and feels that he’s given business ample opportunity to provide guidance.

On May 19, we were copied on some letters to the governor from state legislators and industry associations, begging him to speed up his reopening of the economy before the arrival of Memorial Day weekend.

Over the past few months, we’ve focused on the impact of the pandemic on different industries and introduced you to people who are finding ways to pivot. But those pre-Memorial Day pleas for relief got us thinking about whether we were being enough of an advocate for small business.

So, we pivoted even knowing that:

  1. The governor likes to announce things on Friday afternoons, and we go to press Thursday.
  2. The governor could issue yet another modification to his executive orders if the voices from the letters we’re publishing are loud enough.

The governor and other state officials have a week after the holiday weekend to make the decision whether they should delay the June 1 targeted start of Phase 1.

We decided to talk more than most about the fine line between protecting the public health and just dragging your feet on opening the state’s economy. Many businesses are wondering if there’s much of a benefit to waiting until a week after the holiday weekend to launch Phase 1. Gov. Carney does have an answer to that. Meanwhile, more small businesses will fall even further behind the financial 8-ball. And while they embrace the importance of testing employees and perhaps customers, they also wonder why there’s no clear plan for day-to-day workplace testing outside poultry processing plants, and whether there’s an actual need for it.

One of the big issues you’ll read about in this issue has to do with short-term rentals at the beach, where the restrictions force owners to refund (in most cases) pre-pandemic payments from out-of-state vacationers, get commissions back from Realtors, and deal with the impact on mortgage payments. And that doesn’t even take into account that they can’t even rent out those beach houses to in-state residents unless the agreement was signed prior to April 6.

All of these outstanding issues nearly two months into the pandemic has led  an increasing number of small businesses and industry organizations to ask whether the governor dislikes small business.

The numbers we see indicate we’ve flattened the curve, but business owners still fear that the state is playing Lucy to our Charlie Brown with that football.

Remember those declining hospitalization rates? Well, the governor and Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay are confident enough in those trends that last week started allowing hospitals to restart elective surgeries. There are some who think that was insulting to small businesses and highlights the lack of a business influence on decision-making.

It becomes a question of trust. Does Gov. Carney believe that small businesses can be trusted to do the right thing (and frankly, if he hasn’t been inside a local Walmart lately, maybe he should be worrying about their commitment to cleanliness)?

The messages of washing our hands, maintaining safe social distancing, wearing a mask, and protecting the most vulnerable has been hammered home. And we embrace it. Of the other states that have reopened, only a few have seen things get worse because most people care about others.

The economic contraction will be worse the longer we wait. If the governor wants to beef up health inspections and heighten monitoring to make sure people are following the rules, fine. So long as they’re also going to Walmart, Home Depot, Costco, Target, and the many more big-box stores that have better weathered the storm too.

Decisions are being made by people who don’t seem to trust that we can do this safely. If you think we can, let them know at comments@delawarebusinesstimes.com.

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1 Comment

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    Will Minster May 22, 2020

    I’m torn on this issue. While I believe they fumbled the ball early, they have been listening to small business. They just took too long in the huddle. The public will now decide if a business is following procedures. We don’t need big brother pushing us down. Now the government needs to reimburse businesses that can prove the loss in income is due to forced closure.


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