As happens every Sunday (COVID-19 or no COVID-19), I did the family grocery shopping the other day, making sure to bring along three important items — my shopping list, my wallet and my mask. At a time when so many people are struggling to make ends meet, I even took a moment or two to be thankful I could go to the store and fill a cart with food for a family of four.
The novel coronavirus has devastated the national economy, as it was reported last week that the U.S. unemployment rate had soared to 14.7% in April. That’s the highest since the Great Depression, and there are even reports the figure is an undercount of as much as 5%. Unfortunately, things have a good chance of getting even worse before they get better. Higher unemployment means people will spend less money, which means businesses will suffer, which means … well, I’m not an economist, but I think that means something akin to a significant recession.
As editor of The Globe, and someone with a longtime interest in the newspaper industry, there’s plenty of evidence of how today’s economic conditions are quickly wreaking havoc. Our recent announcement to switch from two print editions a week to one (we will continue to have an e-edition and provide daily updates at dglobe.com) is but one example of a worldwide trend. It must be emphasized that newspapers aren’t alone in suffering. Any entity that relies on advertising as a critical form of revenue — whether it’s radio, TV, magazines or something else — is almost certainly scrambling to get by right now. That’s because so many of their regular clients quite simply can’t afford to spend money. Not only is business much slower right now, but in many cases there’s no business, period, thanks to executive orders limiting commerce to enterprises labeled as “essential.”
That “essential” label is leading to a growing division of sorts, which in retrospect seems inevitable. In Worthington, and across Minnesota, the doors of small “Mom and Pop” businesses have remained shuttered for weeks while bigger stores continue to operate. It was much publicized during the latter part of last week that Jordan’s gigantic candy store had now been recognized as “essential” and would re-open. Rather than argue for or against the justification of that decision, it seems more worthwhile to point out that at this stage of the game, if communities are going to continue to even have a chance of decent economic health, business of all kinds — who employ all kinds of people and, as a result, generate the sale and purchase of all kinds of items — must all be recognized as “essential” before it’s too late.
Of course, it should be unequivocally clear that universal action such as this shouldn’t be done with a mere snap of the fingers or, as our governor has often said, a “turn of the dial.” There should be carefully considered guidelines, such as a maximum number of people allowed per square foot. Maybe some businesses will need to have plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizer, directional arrows and other precautionary measures — just like many of the already “essential” businesses do now. What happens, too, if somebody walks into a business and gets exposed to COVID-19 in some way? Where’s the liability, if any? There’s an issue that would need to be made clear.
Here’s another key component of re-opening business that merits consideration. My family and I may be tired as all get-out of staying at home, but we’re by no means going to dash into any business that we don’t think will be safe. While there are definitely some folks that aren’t taking quarantine and the inarguable health risks very seriously, I think many others would concur that while going out and spending money is very appealing right now, they’re also not about to throw all caution to the wind. This would indicate that it would be in the best interest of any merchant to provide an environment that’s inviting and safe to its customers — if it’s good for shoppers, it will ultimately be good for business.
In the newspaper industry, it has been said that the ongoing pandemic has only made the writing on the wall infinitely clearer than it was previously. Sadly, something similar could be said for retail in general as transactions through e-commerce were already soaring before COVID-19’s arrival. Can these trends be reversed?
Perhaps this is overly simplistic, but we can’t sit idly by as communities — or as businesses, or as individuals — waiting for something to be done on our behalf. Voices need to be raised, government officials need to listen, businesses need to re-open. From there, people need to spend money, and businesses will hire more people back as a result, and people will spend more money. With that, businesses will resume more regular advertising campaigns, and people will see that advertising and spend even more money. It sounds a little bit like an elementary school Junior Achievement lesson, doesn’t it?
Let’s go, people of Worthington. Let’s do our part to make this all happen.