By Thom Little, Ph.D.
It is hard for me to believe, but I have been studying and working with state legislative leaders
for more than three decades now and I remain in awe of the work they do and the challenges they willingly take on. Far too often, they find themselves between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” choosing between cutting critical programs or raising taxes on hard working citizens; signing a law that benefits the state but hurts their district; or opposing a program that is important to the governor and their party because supporting it would increase the state’s debt.
However, never in my lifetime have I seen legislators placed in a more difficult position than
they are right now as they try to “thread the needle” balancing the public pressure and economic necessity to reopen their states’ economies with the very real health risks that come with reopening. From the beginning of March until early April, governors in forty-four states issued executive orders limiting public interactions and commerce across the country to the point where, by mid-April, 97% of the nation’s population was under some type of “stay at home” or “shelter in place” order.
Obviously, under such restrictions, nonessential businesses shut their doors, state revenues
plummeted and unemployment rose to levels not seen since the Great Depression as states
struggled to “flatten the curve” of deaths related to the Covid-19 virus. While a vast majority of
Americans initially supported the restrictions and a majority remain concerned that reopening
might increase infections and deaths, the last few weeks have witnessed an increasing number of people suffering from “quarantine fatigue.” There has been mounting pressure for state
governments to “restart” their states, ease stay at home orders and allow restaurants, salons,
barber shops and other “nonessential businesses” to gradually reopen.
Despite the very real potential health risks posed by easing restrictions, conversations SLLF has hosted with leaders from across the country reveal several factors that have moved most states in that direction. First, while the health risks of the virus are very evident, there are also less obvious health risks to an extended “lockdown,” including increased child and spouse abuse, higher rates of suicides and drug overdoses and untreated mental health conditions. Second, the extended period of limited economic activity has decimated state budgets with projected revenues down as much as fifty percent. Given the balanced budget requirements in more than forty states, unlike the federal government, that lost revenue will result in cuts to essential services. The longer the shutdown lasts, the deeper that hole gets, and the more cuts that will need to be made. Finally, the financial costs are not just borne by the state, but by the millions who have lost their jobs, at least temporarily. Legislators have made it clear that overwhelmed state welfare systems have been unable to provide the CARES money promised to many Americans who have now gone two months with no income. Those desperate constituents, and the businesses they would normally patronize, have become increasingly bold in their efforts to move legislators and governors to action.
However, even if state policymakers want to reopen and believe it is best for their state and its
citizens, legislators note several challenges that must be overcome for such reopenings to be
feasible and effective. First, most agree that we are falling short of the testing capabilities to
ensure that increased public activity will not result in significant spikes in the number of people contracting the coronavirus. Second, while most people in the public and private sector believe that businesses will do their best to keep patrons as safe as possible, it is less clear if they have access to enough protective gear and sanitary supplies to do so.
Also, this virus seems to have varying impacts on different geographic regions, economic sectors and ethnic populations. (Death and infection rates are much higher for urban areas, low-skilled workers and minority populations.) This poses significant challenges for legislators as they weigh opening the entire state versus opening sections of the state, while keeping restrictions in place for others. Finally, it is increasingly obvious that restarting state economies is not as easy as flipping a switch. For some small businesses operating on thin margins already, their losses may be too high, and it may be too late. They will not be able to reopen. For others to reopen, supply chains will have to be reestablished, wary workers convinced that they can work in a safe environment and childcare centers must also be reopened for the children of those returning to work.
Our conversations with legislators make it clear that they are very much aware of the challenges they face. If they open too fast, deaths from the virus could spike. If they open too slowly, the economic damage to the state and its people may be irreparable. Right now, most support the idea of opening their states gradually, keeping an eye on the number of new cases, the number of available hospitals and ventilators and the number of virus-related deaths. They plan to adjust their policies accordingly. I do not envy their tasks, but I continue to admire them for tackling the problems!
Please know that SLLF stands ready to assist in any way possible as do the many corporate
members of our Advisory Committee.