The money disappeared before my parents ever had a chance. Turns out, $350 billion isn’t much under the weight of a COVID-19 pandemic that’s reshaping the American economy. My dad laughs as he tells me their little Italian restaurant in a Hawaii suburb, a 40-minute drive from downtown Honolulu, feels like a metaphoric dinghy in a storm.
We don’t know what to do with the news that Congress is set to approve $310 billion more for the Paycheck Protection Program, which is supposed to help small businesses survive the pandemic through forgivable loans with certain conditions, namely keeping your employees hired. Their loan application remains in the queue, with no word on when money might arrive. Many think the funds will disappear as quickly as the first round, if not faster.
It’s hard to parse out whether people are even getting the money in good faith. Sure, corporate behemoths like Ruth’s Chris and Eataly got caught red-handed and are now pledging to return the tens of millions they swiftly received. But so many capitalists are treating the stimulus like a money-grab free-for-all, with the most dollars going to those with the cleverest paperwork and fattest accounts at the bank, not to those who need the money most urgently to protect workers and family livelihoods.
It hardly seems to matter that the government is getting some money back, or that class-action lawsuits have been filed against the major banks for unethical preferential treatment. The situation was always a shell game. It’s not really about whether there’s enough money. More than 175 publicly traded companies received $650 million-plus in forgivable loans, with little to no oversight on whether they actually need it, according to CNN. And new data shows staggering racial and gender inequality in who got the money, with experts fearing that up to 90 percent of minority- and women-owned businesses got nothing in the scrum.
“I don’t think the bill was really targeted at the small guys,” as Penn Wharton economist Richard Prisinzano told CNN.
This is the context in which several politicians and business leaders are calling for the “reopening” of businesses, even in the face of outcry from public health experts. People are literally out here saying that saving the economy is more important than saving lives, and while that’s an easily mockable opinion, it’s an opinion that’s starting to catch on. Without aid nor much long-term direction from the government, a lot of business owners are starting to peek their heads out and wonder whether they have any other choice but to open the till again — and soon. Allowing businesses to reopen now, under loose and unclear guidelines (as in Georgia), is to place people at a fork in the road that will inevitably cost lives. That’s how the pandemic riddle works.
Who really benefits from reopening the economy in such rapidly changing waters, with little clarity on what assistance regular people can get? What does it mean to reopen “safely” when we don’t even have widespread COVID testing? How do we consider the benefit for workers and employers when so many employers still screw their workers over because of loose rules on protections during the pandemic?
I was mulling these questions when I stumbled across a viral message from a “restaurant owner in Georgia” that seemed to articulate the trap small business owners could fall in:
And this made me see it: Reopening the economy, as currently designed, is basically a glorified pyramid scheme. The smoke and mirrors around what’s going on, the domino-effect way people are compelled to participate, and the way money funnels and concentrates at the top — these are symptoms of a pyramid scheme. And, like in a true scam, it’s the people at the bottom of the pyramid who lose most often and have the most to lose.
Can you see it, too? Wall Street wants the markets to recover. Creditors and landlords want money to flow again. A governor’s order pressures mayors to follow suit, lest they be judged unfavorably by a money-starved electorate; that convinces large employers to take the risk in a bid to beat their vulnerable competitors. Opening businesses means recruiting customers; that leaves more workers on the front lines, carrying the burden of infection with few avenues for recourse if they do get sick. The end of quarantine will mean the end of higher wages and “catastrophe pay” for essential workers, as well as roadblocks to employer paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Act. And losing money means it’s less of a choice to keep yourself safe at home and more of a consequence.
Even if saving more lives now may actually mean a better economy in the future, it’s seductive to buy into the idea that we need to sacrifice in order to protect America for future generations. The reality is that a bunch of people with no cash on hand are left with few options other than approaching the entities they owe, hat in hand, to negotiate for forgiveness. That “advice” from experts makes me think of what the great chef and writer Gabrielle Hamilton says in her lengthy, heartfelt New York Times essay, as she mulls the muck of dead-end loan applications and unreturned calls from her bank: “I could start to see that things I had thought would be quick and uncomplicated would instead be steep and unyielding. No one was going to rescue me.”
It means something that even a beloved, influential chef — of a restaurant that survived for so long as a beacon of all things good and humble — feels powerless right now. There will be much grieving to come, too: Research suggests some 40 percent of businesses fail to reopen after disasters, which this certainly seems to qualify as. People who are out of work or struggling to imagine a future with a shuttered business deserve compassion and help. But the fix so many are selling as the way out of economic ruin is no fix at all — it’s just putting faith in a system that has failed the people who make America run, time and time again.
We’re staring at a society-shifting pandemic that makes 9/11 look quite small in hindsight. The government put us in this position by failing to prepare and failing to provide aid. Now they want small businesses and workers to carry the load of the recovery?
I don’t know how my parents will fare in the long run, or whether their little Italian restaurant will survive. I wonder if they’re doing enough to protect the employees that work the daytime delivery-order shift. I wonder if unemployment will be enough for the ones who were laid off. There is, perhaps, a true middle ground — a way to reopen businesses with real rules, real enforcement and a foundation of financial support. But my parents no longer trust our leaders to get that complex equation right. For now, the decision to reopen or not remains out of their hands anyway, with Hawaii in lockdown through May. And they’re in no rush, even as anxiety for the future rises.
“We’re just going to have to hang on in the storm. What else are we going to do? Better than dying,” my dad says over the phone. “Just like every other time when the economy tanked, we’re going to have to survive, and figure out how to recover later.”