Even amid a recent spike in COVID-19’s ever-fluctuating caseload across Colorado, it is important to remember that there not only is light at the end of the tunnel — but also a need for jobs when we get there. We were reminded of that by a report in Friday’s Gazette about an alarming resurgence in unemployment claims in the state.
Yes, Coloradans are worried — about their economic security as well as about catching COVID. The priority for our policy makers at this point should be to balance the two worries amid a persistent but well-worn pandemic.
Certainly, our elected leaders must continue taking steps to contain the hospitalization rate for the minority of COVID cases — still sizable — that turn serious in any given week. We don’t want our state’s hospitals or other health care infrastructure any more overburdened than is already the case. Plenty of intensive care units and emergency rooms already are inundated.
Yet, the steps taken to curb COVID must be thoughtful and focused — more so than up to this point — to avoid any more collateral damage to an economy that has been reeling ever since last spring’s lockdown.
As noted in The Gazette’s report, 17,130 unemployment claims were filed with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment during the last week of November. It is the highest number of claims since May and a sharp increase over claims filed in more recent months. Before November, regular claims hadn’t exceeded the 7,000s since July. And unemployment claims specific to the pandemic are rising even more steeply, hitting 14,242 in the week ending Nov. 28 — nearly double the previous week’s 7,369 and more than triple the 4,188 claims from the week before. It’s the highest number of pandemic claims since June 13.
To restate the obvious, most of that joblessness isn’t caused directly by the virus itself. To be sure, shopping, dining, travel and other activities all have felt the effects of shifting behavior by consumers who aim to avoid catching COVID. But most of the job losses are caused by state and local restrictions imposed on commercial and other activities.
The latest surge in unemployment is no doubt fueled significantly by the renewed ban on indoor dining at restaurants in the state’s more populous counties. Those counties recently ranked in the “red zone” of the state’s revised COVID “dial” for determining how much to limit the public’s activities based on the number of COVID cases.
The state’s restaurant industry, already on life support since last spring, has been pushing back. Operators in the industry contend they are being unfairly singled out and that their role in spreading the virus has been overstated.
“This feels like an especially difficult blow considering there is little evidence tying dining to surging cases,” Colorado Restaurant Association President Sonia Riggs recently told Colorado Politics. “Most spread is happening in private gatherings.”
Public health officials not surprisingly disagree. In Denver, for example, the health department says about a quarter of the outbreaks it was able to track in recent weeks were at restaurants. Nevertheless, the actual numbers were quite low. The restaurant outbreaks tallied by the department amounted to only single digits in most weeks — a drop in the bucket of all new COVID cases turning up in any given week in Denver. The same is no doubt true statewide.
Despite the low numbers traced to eateries, those that can’t afford to set up heated dining outdoors, or rely only on takeout, are shuttered for now. And their employees are left wondering how to pay for next month’s rent or even groceries.
Do eateries, where all staff are masked, really pose more of a risk of transmitting COVID than standing in line — even a socially distanced line — to pay for groceries at your neighborhood supermarket? Or, at a your favorite big-box store?
Is the crackdown on restaurants one of the steps to curb COVID — that in fact is a serious overstep? And it’s just one example. Could the rigid capacity restrictions on, say, health clubs or houses of worship or other gathering places be relaxed to allow for more realistic use of such spaces without substantially increasing the risk to users, who will be masked anyway?
The public health officials who urge sweeping measures to stem any epidemic are generally highly competent, tirelessly dedicated — and hyper-focused on the malady of the moment. It is not their job — nor should it be — to navigate society toward a resurrection of economic life.
That is the job of our elected leadership. Which is why that leadership must place input from public health advisers in perspective — and temper it with a healthy dose of reality.