Everybody is essential to somebody.
So where does the government get off picking winners and losers in the coronavirus pandemic by picking who’s essential and who’s not?
As the economy reopens in phases the argument will intensify, the Solomon’s choice put before mayors and governors all across the country.
Liquor stores are considered essential, but dentists aren’t. Pot shops and Home Depot are essential, but schools and churches aren’t. In Florida, professional wrestling is essential, but going to the beach isn’t, or, well, wasn’t.
One-sized logic in the face of a crisis, however, is an exercise of politics. There is a contingent of us who don’t like the government telling us what to do, even if it’s telling us to avoid a horrible, smothering death.
A second-level thinker can see reason. Dentist offices use a lot of personal protective equipment that might be needed in hospitals, since the states aren’t sure if they can count on the federal government for supplies. Home repair is essential, if we have to stay home, you could argue.
The day Denver initially announced pot and liquor stores would close, it caused a panic-buying rush, exactly the kind of crowd-gathering public officials were trying to stop.
Sure, the world could use less liquor in general, but it also causes terrible effects from withdrawals. Why would a governor fill up hospital beds with more suffering? Jared Polis wouldn’t, because he didn’t.
“Every business is essential,” the governor told the “Today” show on NBC on April 21. “Everything that people do is essential. That’s what’s so frustrating to try to put things in essential and nonessential buckets — nobody thinks like that and the world doesn’t work like that.”
Naturally, there are different takes.
“Coloradans are getting a good dose of communism watching government officials trying to centrally plan essential and nonessential businesses,” says my friend Jeff Hunt, the director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.
“Unfortunately, we also see how corrupt these decisions can be. Have a good lobbyist and a direct line to the mayor’s office, like the marijuana industry, and your business remains ‘essential.’ Provide home appliances or mask-making material and you’re considered ‘nonessential.’ ”
Polis is hurdling on an economic balance beam. Lives against livelihoods isn’t a decision I’d want to make.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” Polis said during his briefing on April 15. “The virus isn’t going to disappear or go away anytime soon. We need a way of life that’s sustainable — that means sustainable psychologically and economically and socially.”
Businesses on the losing side of the question over who’s essential have reason to fret their future as the uncertainty drags on.
I turned to Kevin S. Neiman, a Denver-based bankruptcy attorney considered a “super lawyer” who handles complex financial and commercial cases.
“I don’t think it’s the intention for the government to pick winners and losers, but that’s the practical effect of all this, for better or worse,” he told me.
Could someone sue if a government decision cost them their business? Probably not, says Kevin. The government enjoys broad immunity on the effects of public policy, even more so in a declared emergency. In general, he advises clients to go to court only as a last resort, exhausting recovery programs, working with creditors and having faith in themselves.
How much is too much government remains a fair question. Last month House Republican-leader Patrick Neville said stay-at-home orders reflected “Gestapo-like mentality.” He didn’t call anybody a Nazi, least of all the state’s first Jewish governor.
Politics, however, operates with a sledge hammer, so there were calls from the left for Neville to resign.
It’s bound to get uglier on both sides in lieu of a traditional campaign season.
Democrats will harvest all the hay they can over President Donald Trump sitting out February and downplaying the threat.
“We have it very much under control in this country,” Trump said on Feb. 23, when he said the president of China was “doing a very good job.”
It’s just as factual that on Feb. 24 Nancy Pelosi urged Americans to visit Chinatown in San Francisco, after Trump instituted travel restrictions with China and called coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Pelosi’s hometown is 35.8% Asian-American.
“The city is on top of the situation,” Pelosi said.
More than usual, the facts are slippery, but here’s another way of thinking about it.
Beyond the orders and guidelines, presidents and governors don’t decide when the economy reopens. We do. We decide the risks we’re willing to impose on ourselves and others.
Americans are nervous. The risk is that if we shop till we drop too soon, the virus could resurge and the deaths would pile up. Nervousness would be replaced by fear. Consumer confidence won’t run on fear. My grandmother nearly starved in the Depression, and she saved tin foil until the day she died.
Kiss stadiums, concerts and crowded restaurants goodbye for many more months than May and June. Kiss college football season goodbye (Roll Tide!). Kiss Christmas goodbye. Kiss your parents goodbye.
Last week Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, predicted a second wave would be more difficult than the first.
That’s what happened with the Spanish flu in 1918, which, by the way, began in Kansas.