Why won’t Republicans protect Arizonans from economic disaster?

March 18, 2020 9:40 am
coronavirus recession

Arizona legislators are planning on ending their work this week. If they do so without assuring the economic security of the millions of Arizonans who are already seeing their lives upended as government-mandated social distancing policies take effect, it will be a gross abdication of their responsibility.

Of course, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The Republican leaders in both chambers – Rusty Bowers in the House of Representatives and Karen Fann in the Senate – have been clear that the legislature won’t take up anything beyond a bare-bones budget aimed merely at keeping government operating in the extent that lawmakers don’t return to work before the next fiscal year begins in July.

Any calls for more are simply partisan games, the Republicans say. 

But that budget won’t do much for the more than 350,000 Arizonans who work in the hospitality sector. Nearly 300,000 of them work in restaurants, bars and hotels. 

Phoenix and Tucson coronavirus restrictions are just the beginning

Bars in Phoenix and Tucson are closed, and restaurants in those cities are restricted to takeout and delivery. All the front-of-house staff that, in normal times, takes us to our seats and serves us our food and refills our waters and cleans our table? All effectively out of work.

All of the bartenders who pour us beers and mix our cocktails, and the bar-backs who make sure the bars are stocked with beer and wine and liquor? All effectively out of work.

All of the hotel employees who work the front desk or take our reservations or clean our rooms? With air travel down sharply and tourism evaporating as people isolate themselves and their families and avoid non-essential travel, many of those people are effectively out of work – and some are now literally out of work.

And what about the companies that serve those restaurants and bars and hotels? The janitorial companies and the linen companies and the food distributors and the local farms that supply produce – they all have employees, many of whom are sure to face steep cuts in the hours they work, if they’re not laid off entirely.

And this is just scratching the surface: schools are already closed, and it’s logical to expect mandated closures of places like movie theaters, museums, fitness centers, salons and many other places where people congregate. 

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned Republican senators that the unemployment rate could hit 20% in the wake of the coronavirus. For perspective, unemployment in the Great Recession last decade peaked at 10%. In the Great Depression, it was 24.9%. 

The per capita income in Arizona is $30,530, and median household income is $59,246, both below the national average. Nearly 1.1 million households make less than $50,000 a year, the vast majority of them hourly wage jobs. 

And it’s those workers – those families – that will be the first to bear the brunt of the coronavirus economic fallout.

But it won’t be limited to them. The big companies will survive in most cases – already, industries are lining up for government bailouts – but the small businesses will be obliterated. The independent restaurants that have thrived in the past decade as Phoenix developed an exciting culinary identity will be lucky to re-open their doors.

Social distancing will be the new normal

Our elected officials need to come to grips with the hard reality of the situation: We are in this soup for likely the next 18 months, if not longer. Researchers at Imperial College London this week published a report that should shake America to its core – and that reportedly convinced President Donald Trump to actually take the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19 seriously

Its findings are grim: If the U.S. does nothing and treats COVID-19 like the standard flu, some 4 million Americans will die, either from the virus or a lack of ventilators to treat the seriously ill. If a “mitigation” strategy is adopted, focusing largely on isolating the elderly and the sick, the spread is reduced but roughly 2 million people still would die.

Finally, if a “suppression” strategy is enacted – quarantining the ill, social distancing for the whole population, shutting down public gatherings and schools – success can be achieved. Within a month, the death rate will peak at a few thousand and hospitals won’t get overrun. 

But – and this is a gigantic but – America can’t ease up on the suppression until a vaccine is developed and every American is inoculated, or else the coronavirus begins its rampant spread and COVID-19 kills millions of people. 

The best case scenario is that a vaccine will be developed and deemed safe within 18 months. A 100-page Trump administration plan is anticipating the pandemic will last that long, resulting in widespread shortages that will strain consumers and the nation’s health care system.

Right now, our state’s leaders are looking at this as a temporary problem. It isn’t. We may be ringing in the New Year in 2022 – in small groups, and six feet away from each other – before we can start to return to the way we lived our lives a month ago, when none of us had ever heard the term “social distancing.” 

Protecting the people includes their economic security

We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetimes. No hurricane or terrorist attack or housing bubble has ever destroyed our economy the way the coronavirus and COVID-19 is set to. 

The core function of government is to protect the people. The protection Arizona needs now is two-fold: both the physical health and the economic health of its people.

How will the soon-to-be out of work Arizonans pay their rent or mortgages? Or buy food? Or health insurance? Or medication? Or gas for their cars? Or clothes for their children? 

Democrats in the House have already identified common-sense policies that the state needs to implement immediately to provide security for the people in a time when the economy won’t be up to the task: Prohibit foreclosures and evictions, increase funding for unemployment benefits, mandate that companies provide health insurance even if a worker’s hours temporarily dip below 32 hours, expand mandatory sick leave.

And that’s just a starting point. To truly serve and protect the people, the government will likely need to take further steps as we continue to grapple with the ramifications.

This will cost money. Our state has long been led by people who view spending as an illness unto itself. Now, spending will be part of the solution to coping with a real illness causing real economic destruction.

If our Republican officials truly care about the people they represent more than the ideas that underpin their party platform, they won’t leave the Capitol until they’ve taken even some small steps toward protecting Arizona from the coming calamity.

Unfortunately, I think it will take an immense amount of suffering by hard-working Arizonans before that happens.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.