Stakeholders urge discussions on reopening businesses

Stakeholders urge discussions on reopening businesses
As Governor Jay Inslee’s “stay at home” order remains in place, other elected officials and small business owners say it’s time to discuss reopening parts of the economy. Photo: freepik.com

Key elected state officials and small business advocates are stressing the need for a state plan to allow businesses to reopen their doors as soon as possible while complying with health and safety guidelines.

“Every week that the government delays…is a direct correlation on how important they think businesses is to this state,” Blueprint Technologies President and CEO Ryan Neal said during Washington Policy Center’s (WPC) April 14 virtual summit.

Although Governor Jay Inslee has made a pact with Oregon and California calling for a regional approach to the issue, the agreement doesn’t specify when – or how – the economy will start up again.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox (R-2) said in an April 16 webinar that it’s time to “start looking at how can we bring business back online that doesn’t result in additional danger and exposure.”

However, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, who also supports creating a safe, workable path to get businesses operating again, said people should not expect a sudden return to normal. “We switched our society off like a light switch, and we’re going to turn it on with a dimmer.”

WPC Small Business Center Director Mark Harmsworth made a similar remark during a session on April 14 as part of his organization’s virtual summit. “It’s not ‘flip the bit’ and the whole economy just restarts. We’re going to see a gradual resumption of these industries.”

At the same time, Dammeier said the focus should be on restarting the economy and ensuring it recovers. Recent state and regional data give good reason for the urgency. The state Employment Security Department reports that 143,241 state residents applied for unemployment benefits last week. Although it’s 26,822 fewer than the prior week, it’s still the third highest on record and five times greater than the worst week during the Great Recession, having approached Depression-era figures. In Pierce County, unemployment has reached 18 percent, and Dammeier estimates it will soon reach 20 percent.

Meanwhile, the Washington Research Council reports that almost 19,000 Washington-based small businesses have received forgivable loans from the Small Business Administration under the latest federal stimulus package.

However, Harmsworth underscored the importance of allowing these businesses to resume regular activity, noting that most only have 90 days’ worth of money in the bank. “Every minute that we stayed closed down is more risk that we’re going to see more and more layoffs.”

“Uncertainty is damaging,” Tom Hoban said during the virtual summit. He is the chairman and cofounder of Hoban Family, a property management company.

“There’s just a depth of business literacy that’s generally not understood,” he added, when discussing the situation businesses are in at this point in time.

The situation is particularly bad for restaurants, according to Neal. During the summit, he said they typically operate paycheck to paycheck. “A restaurant (gets) shut down for four days…that’s their profit right now. They’re not an asset-rich business. It’s just decimating.”

For builders, one way for the state to do a “soft launch” is to reopen at least parts of the industry. Initially considered an “essential activity” under Inslee’s March 23 “shelter in place” order, the next day a clarification was issued removing them from the list. Since then, builders have sought to have their industry reclassified while dealing with vandalism, burglaries and squatters on their construction sites.

“We do have the ability to do work and we will be…continuing to raise our hands saying: ‘Put us back to work,’” Janice Huxford said during the summit. She is a Lake Stevens Planning Commissioner and small business owner. “If my roofers are any closer than six feet on a roof, there’s something wrong with the roofers. There’s no reason for us to be sheltering in place.”

Wilcox said he hasn’t received much of an explanation from Inslee’s office as to why construction remains nonessential, and he warns that keeping businesses closed without sufficient reason could backfire. “In the long run and maybe in the short run, you’re going to lose your ability to mobilize the public to follow your instructions to stay safe. You need to retain your (Inslee) office’s moral authority, and people have to feel like it’s not capricious.”

Once construction resumes, Huxford said the state can aid recovery by avoiding unnecessary audits or onsite inspections. “We need to focus on what we do. If they could give us a period of time for things to calm, I think that would go a long way.”

Inslee’s latest update on the COVID-19 response was April 16. His “stay at home” order lasts until May 4.

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