Updated: Jan 14
For those of us who own businesses where we cannot work remotely and there is a lot of personal contact, the Coronavirus outbreak is an extremely challenging time. This is an unprecedented business disruption. Most of us have temporarily closed our business or slowed it down to only core business functions. This has inevitably led to financial hardship for us, but more significantly for our employees, who have lost their paychecks and are now filling for unemployment. We want to emphasize that this is an excruciating decision to make. Many small business owners have spent so much blood, sweat and tears building a business, and now they have made a conscious decision to cut off revenue, damage the business, and hurt the many people that depend on it for employment. Forget about the financial risk of owners not earning an income or worse having trouble paying back a loan on the business.
Why would we do all this? Because this is a time when more than ever, our decisions impact millions of people. If we don't do this, thousands, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of people will die, in the United States. Ironically, if we all don't do this, it is more likely that our business will stay closed way longer. As business owners, we are all connected. Let us explain why.
For skeptical business owners, the first step is accepting that Coronavirus is not your regular cold or the flu. The erroneous statements made by many politicians early in the outbreak, have been meanwhile corrected. The US government is now treating Coronavirus as the most serious contagion that it is. Most importantly, the President of the United States is doing that. Coronavirus is more lethal than the flu; 20 to 40 times more lethal (0.1% mortality vs 2 to 4%). It is especially lethal in people with pre-existing conditions like cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and lung disease. Unfortunately, it is also much more serious for older individuals, and people over 65 are much more likely to die from this virus than others.
Coronavirus is estimated to be 2 to 3 times more contagious than flu, and approximately 4 out of 5 people who undergo testing, test positive for Coronavirus. The majority of people can walk around with Coronavirus during the 7+ days incubation time, while not even knowing that they are sick. This is what is especially dangerous about Coronavirus. Lastly if you still have doubts, ask yourself if you know more than the collective intelligence of all the epidemiologists, scientists, and doctors in the CDC, WHO, and every state and international health agency?
After we accept the grave danger the Coronavirus poses, we need to accept our social responsibility. At this time the world does not need routine services. It only needs the minimum services to keep us alive. Outside of that, we all need to stay home. We need social distancing. The basic reason is that all of us are vectors for the virus. If we stay home and limit our interactions, we prevent the virus from using us to spread. Ultimately the virus impact will be lesser and lesser. Most importantly, we “flatten the curve” i.e. limit the number of number of people that are infected by the virus at any particular point of time. This will prevent our health system from being overwhelmed and needless deaths by patients and healthcare workers because we don’t have the needed number ventilators and personal protective equipment. This also buys us time to develop treatments that can reduce the force, effect and the severity of the disease so that less people need to die after infection in the near future. Increasingly we find that regions and countries that were the fastest to initiate social distancing measures have the lowest case rates and fatalities. This is also seen historically in the Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918 and widely cited comparison of Philadelphia and St Louis, with St Louis exercising more measures and seeing a much flatter disease curse with less mortality.
As the business community leader in the greater Compton region, it is obvious why we need to do our part. The vast majority of what our courageous healthcare workers do at the present time is routine care. The vast majority of the patients that they see are more vulnerable to Coronavirus: the folks who are in ICUs are mostly over 60 years old and they have previous health complications like hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and asthma. It is not just about exposing vulnerable patients to a possible Coronavirus infection in our places of business.
But what about our businesses? Some business owners who refuse to alter their “business as usual” approach cite concerns about forcing employees to go home. They claim that we will cause a financial depression, employees who want to work will not be able to pay for their living expenses. These are valid concerns, but they are short-sighted. At this point all of those concerns are secondary. Folks who are going about their business as usual will interact with people, touch the pump at the gas station, buy something at a store, touch surfaces they would otherwise not have if they would have stayed at home.
We have received guidance from the WHO, medical societies and professionals, and national agencies such as CDC that this is what we have to do. We have cancelled the NCAA tournament, professional tennis tournaments, the NBA season, major music festivals, conferences, and major national retailers have closed their stores. Why would state and national politicians intentionally tank the economy in a re-election year if this was not real?
There are many resources that are now emerging for small business owners. Many states, such as California, are waiving unemployment taxes for employers whose employees file unemployment because of Coronavirus. Emergency packages including low interest loans are being evaluated. Unemployment resources for employees are increasing both in terms of decreasing “red tape” to get aid and more funds from both states and the federal government. Our government is behind us. They want us to stop working right now and they will support businesses and employees through this.
The faster and more universally we shut down, the shorter the impact on our businesses and the faster the economy can rebound. Once we flatten the curve, reduce transmission rates, reduce the rate of mortality, and allow time for the discovery of treatments, we will be able to re-open our businesses. We need to “rip the band aide off” now. If there are non-essential businesses that stay open right now and conduct normal business, it makes it worse for all businesses. It will delay the majority of businesses opening. This will have ripple effects.
Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic banks were well capitalized and personal savings were high (unlike 2008) and the market fundamentals were strong. Many businesses and individuals can survive 1 or 2 months without income. Once they receive a normal paycheck or income, businesses will return to normal. If this is a short lived shut down of 1 to 2 months, consumer spending, which is a driver of our economy will also return to normal. However, if this situation lasts longer, most businesses and individuals cannot weather this without consequences. Personal savings will be depleted, individuals will default on mortgages and business loans, credit card debt will increase, and our financial institutions will weaken as an increasing percentage of their debt is defaulted on. Once this happens, the bounce back will be considerably harder. The economic fundamentals will have changed. We turn a depression or recession that lasts months, into one that lasts years. Do you see how our businesses are all connected to each other and connected to the economy?
It is an understatement to say that this is an unprecedented time for all of us. In moments like this, it is difficult to know what the right decision is. Some of our national leaders have made missteps in characterizing the severity of the situation in the early stages. This has led to confusion and mixed messaging about what needs to be done to control this situation. Fortunately, at this time there is consensus about what needs to be done. Now it is up to us.
Leadership is hard. Leadership sometimes involves making the difficult decision or the uncomfortable decision, but it always involves making the decision that is for the greater good. Leadership now requires putting lives before profits, people before profits.
Dr. Lestean M. Johnson
Compton Chamber of Commerce