Column: Let Main Street get back to work
MINNEAPOLIS — I think we can all agree that the first role of government is the protection of the people. Thus, it is appropriate for the government to protect people afflicted by COVID-19.
Yet while the coronavirus poses special challenges to public health that need to be addressed, the government should also make it a priority to minimize collateral damage to healthy people. In a free society, there should be some responsibility on the part of the people themselves to monitor their own health and take steps to take care of themselves. Yet over the past few weeks, we have seen Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz shut down wide swaths of our state’s economy and order people to stay at home.
The quarantine of sick people is reasonable; the house arrest of healthy people is not.
Closing sectors of our economy is having a cascading effect over the entire economy. Stifling consumer activity is killing many businesses, including — conspicuously — independent restaurants, 75 percent of which are in jeopardy of failing as a result of the shutdown, according to Food Policy Action. Behind the scenes, the shutdown is causing a ripple effect by crippling supply chains — that is, business-to-business activity — as well.
In a Goldman Sachs survey of more than 1,500 small-business owners, more than 50 percent said they will be able to keep operating for only up to three months under the current conditions. Thus, the shutdown is presenting a comprehensive, crushing blow to main street businesses and to our state’s economy.
When Gov. Walz talks about reopening the economy, it is apparent that he does not understand that the private sector is not like the government sector. He has first-hand experience with government shutdowns, which are easy: When the government re-opens, all the jobs are still there, and the employees march right back to work as if nothing happened.
Such is not the case in the private sector.
When the state economy is finally allowed to reopen, we are going to see that some businesses have died and will not come back to life. The people who worked at those businesses will not march right back as if nothing happened, because their employers will not be resurrected. Sure, some businesses will rebound, and there will be some new opportunities, but the disruptions caused right now will have an impact for decades to come.
In trying to mitigate the human cost of COVID-19, we cannot ignore the enormous human cost of COVID-19 control measures, both now and in the future.
We are lowering our state’s capacity to recover. We are creating untold numbers of victims yet unknown — tomorrow’s Minnesotans who will bear and suffer the economic, social, and physical costs of what we are doing now. Record unemployment is doing irreparable damage to communities and families across our state. The harm is not just economic, either — it is physical, psychological, and spiritual. Unfortunately, time will surely reveal this harsh opportunity cost.
It is clear to anyone who owns a small business right now: Minnesotans want to work. And we should be able to make our own informed choices — to work, if we want to work, and to stay home, if we are not comfortable going to work. I know this: Most Minnesotans — indeed, most Americans — want to be makers, not takers. Minnesota workers are tired of being told that, somehow, you’re a hero if you stay home.
The medical, health and other professionals on the COVID-19 front lines are true heroes, and so are the unsung people keeping the heartbeat of the Great American Experiment intact: The small businesses trying to weather this storm, the community bankers trying to help their neighbors stay in business, and the people who, despite difficult working conditions, simply want to produce instead of staying idle.
Instead of the government determining what jobs are “essential” or “non-essential,” we should be thinking in terms of what jobs can be performed safely, and how, and it should be up to the employers and employees to decide. It’s time for Minnesotans to get back to work.
Brian Slipka is president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based Business Brokers Investment Company and founder of True North Equity Partners, through which he is sole or controlling owner in over a half dozen main street and lower middle-market businesses.