It’s hard not to feel fatigued as we watch restaurants, entertainment centers and shops continue to struggle. Especially when we can finally see the end of suffering with COVID-19 vaccines just over the horizon. As we wait for herd immunity and the new normal, Congress, the Oregon Legislature and local elected officials can help bring relief in the short-term while delivering programs and policies that stabilize the long term.
Let’s start with focusing on the next several months and what small businesses need to survive. More federal financial assistance that doesn’t add debt to struggling businesses will help keep their doors open in the short-term. Along with a financial shot in the arm, we need a literal (vaccine) shot in the arm. A lot of them. The federal government must exponentially increase the delivery of vaccines delivered to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.
In Oregon, the slow and seemingly disorganized distribution of the vaccine has created frustration and risk. The recent dissemination of thousands of doses at the state fairgrounds in partnership with local health care was one example of how we can do this more quickly. The state needs to be consistent, develop an efficient supply chain and distribution network and pursue more partnerships with both the public and private sectors. This is our best hope of saving lives, restarting the economy and getting businesses back on their feet.
The 2021 Legislature can also help reinvigorate the economy by refraining from adding more burden to businesses trying to recover. An example of policies that would help with this include liability protection for businesses that remain open to the public, financial assistance from the state to businesses straining to meet new regulations and allowing businesses to use their federal grants without paying state taxes on them.
All this needs to be achieved with an acknowledgment of who has been most impacted. Central Oregon’s tourism-related businesses have been closed and employees and out of work the longest. Additionally, minority and small businesses have borne the brunt of the impacts of COVID-19 because they often have little or no savings and leveraged their personal assets and homes to run their businesses. Displaced employees who work for these businesses will need training and a path to new employment.
The most profound and immediate help to these folks is to fix the broken state unemployment insurance system. Nothing helps more than to make sure families can eat and have a roof over their heads.
Later this year, federal funding will likely come in the form of infrastructure and economic stimulus. These investments have historically been the tools of recovery toward stability and growth on a collective scale. Local governments can apply for federal grants to develop infrastructure to help spur jobs and fund development.
Since we know these infrastructure grants are likely coming, Central Oregon needs to be ready with projects that can compete with others from across the country. There are several projects that would be beneficial, including preparing the land for the Oregon State University-Cascades Innovation District and infrastructure to spur the development of Bend’s urban renewal areas. Long story short, we need to pick our project and get collectively behind it, pronto.
We’ll also be looking to the city for continued creativity to help restaurants, recreation, gyms and other businesses most impacted by operation restrictions bounce back quickly. City Council can also help citizens and businesses recover by continuing to support creating more child care and workforce housing. And businesses could jump-start their recovery better if it were affordable to build and expand.
Finally, we can call on Bend’s business collaboration to help each other stabilize and become healthy again. A growing group of Bend and Central Oregon’s business organizations and our higher education institutions are coordinating efforts to provide expertise and assistance to businesses needing help. The effort will better prioritize and coordinate what types of resources are needed and how to make them available to local businesses.
It will take an orchestrated effort at the federal, state, county and local level to restart and stabilize our economy. That can only come if we focus on collective recovery and set aside noise and differences. We need real relief in the short term and stability for the long haul. Working across the aisle or ideology is how we get from this low point to better, healthier times and to thrive in a world that has changed.