Last January, California confirmed its first case of COVID-19 at a time when the state had a record low 3.9% unemployment and a booming economy, a statement that seems radically far away from our present reality.
However, if January 2020 was one of blissful ignorance, January 2021 can be one of cautious optimism. Life-saving vaccines are being administered across the Golden State, and the engine of our economy is sputtering back to life thanks in large part to the safe reopening of our businesses, particularly small local retailers.
Fragile Economic Recovery
However, our economic recovery is fragile, and if lawmakers once again require retailers to close, many workers may not have jobs to go back to once stay-at-home orders are lifted.
Back in March, when the first deadly wave of the coronavirus took hold in our communities, many lawmakers made the tough decision to close any business not deemed essential to slow the spread of the virus and protect public health. It was understandable at the time, as this was a new threat that we lacked the information or resources to combat.
‘Tremendous Human Cost’
These steps, however, carried with them a tremendous human cost. Millions of Californians lost their jobs, with unemployment rising to a whopping 17 percent here in Fresno County and over 20 percent in Los Angeles County. Retail workers, from local mom-and-pop shops to our favorite department stores, were especially impacted.
These workers represent people who already start at a disadvantage in our country. According to a Census report, young people, women, and people of color make up a significant portion of the retail industry workforce — which is why these communities faced disproportionally high unemployment during the first round of economic shutdowns.
To shut these businesses down again would likely cause many businesses to close their doors forever, leaving many Californians with nothing but a pink slip.
As many areas across our state close in the wake of this latest deadly spike in COVID-19 cases, I’m glad to see that some of our state’s leaders are allowing stores and shopping centers to remain open, even if at a reduced capacity. This is a practical way to keep people safe, while also keeping people employed.
Innovative Solutions by Retailers
Losing retailers would make rebuilding our economy even more challenging than it already will be. According to a study by PWC, prior to the pandemic, the retail industry employed more than one-in-four Americans and contributed $3.9 trillion to our economy. Recovering from this pandemic will depend largely on robust growth in retail — something a second round of shutdowns would make impossible.
In addition, businesses have already come up with innovative solutions to protect public health while getting people back to work. Walk into any store today, and you’ll likely see plastic barriers at the register, temperature checks at the door, social distancing markings everywhere, and universal mask requirements — all of which are consistent with CDC guidelines and proven to keep people safe.
Put simply: we don’t need to shut retailers down again.
This has been a challenging year for our state and our country, but the light at the end of the tunnel is fast approaching. We need to make sure that the drivers of job creation — particularly stores and shopping centers — can keep paying the millions of people they employ now, so they can grow our economy tomorrow. If we force businesses to close now, we may find ourselves with a protracted economic crisis long after COVID-19 is history.
Mike Karbassi represents District 2 on the Fresno City Council.