American society is grinding to a halt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 19, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission passed a mandatory “shelter in place” ordinance, enforcing social distancing against businesses. That same day, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order for residents to stay at home. On March 20, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered nonessential businesses to send their workers home. On March 23, Gov. Brian Kemp closed bars, banned gatherings of 10 or more people and ordered those at a higher risk of COVID-19 to shelter in place.
This spells disaster for the U.S. economy. According to phone data from Unacast, travel in the country was 40% lower on March 23 than Feb. 28 as more Americans stay home and responsibly practice social distancing. However, this means that workers are increasingly cut off from their incomes and businesses are increasingly deprived of employees and customers. The Labor Department reports that 3.28 million people filed for unemployment benefits, a record high. The previous high was 695,000 in October 1982.
Athens could be hit especially hard. Spring break is already a slow time for businesses because many students go home. Now that the University of Georgia has moved classes online, businesses will be deprived of an important consumer base until August at the earliest. Many of these small businesses were already struggling beforehand, so the pandemic poses real danger of putting them out of business entirely. Without emergency assistance to keep individuals and businesses afloat, wage employees in Athens could lose their source of income.
The Senate passed a wide-ranging stimulus bill on March 25, providing expanded unemployment insurance, funding for hospitals and medical supplies, aid to local governments, loans to businesses and direct payments to some adults and children. While these steps are commendable, they do not go far enough to address the scale of the crisis at hand.
The Senate stimulus bill includes a one-time direct cash payment of $1,200 for adults making less than $75,000 a year, with an extra $500 payment per child. This is a good start, but if the crisis drags on into the summer months, more regular payments will be needed. Rep. Maxine Waters’ proposal, which called for monthly payments of $2,000 per adult and $1,000 per child, would be more effective.
President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have said they wanted to begin sending the payments on April 6, but it may take months for the IRS to actually process them, meaning Americans who have lost their jobs will find that they cannot pay their bills for the month of April. More urgent action is needed in the meantime to protect the American public.
Individuals and businesses should be absolved of their debt payments while we focus on flattening the curve. The White House has already suspended federal student loan payments, and it should also issue a moratorium on payments for mortgages, rents and utilities and other loans. A freeze on evictions and foreclosures like the one issued by Cuomo is not nearly enough because it does nothing to prevent Americans from amassing months of back payments.
Besides absolving debt, the federal government needs to take more direct intervention to avoid mass unemployment. The Senate stimulus bill includes an expansion of unemployment insurance, giving Americans an additional month and up to $600 more per week. This is a good step to help those who have already lost their jobs, but the unemployment insurance system could be used to implement a much more comprehensive policy.
The government of the United Kingdom has moved to cover 80% of wages for those unable to work during the pandemic, keeping workers on businesses’ payrolls while allowing them to stay home during the pandemic. In order to prevent a wave of layoffs, the United States should adopt a similar policy.
Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had proposed such a measure through the federal unemployment insurance system. There is benefit in using existing systems to dispatch emergency relief, since the institutions and organizations around existing benefits are already in place.
The policy response needed to protect Americans and prevent the spread of the virus is vast and very expensive. The Senate stimulus package costs about $2 trillion, and further measures will only increase the cost. A high federal debt will hurt the economy, but it’s better than forcing Americans to choose between getting sick and losing their livelihoods.
The worst-case scenario is an economic catastrophe on the scale of the Great Depression in the 1930s. For communities like Athens which rely on service industries like restaurants, bars and shops, the impact could be especially ruinous. It is absolutely imperative that the United States government do everything it can to prevent the worst-case scenario from happening.