The economic model in the United States is based on a fundamental idea that the government does not pick winners and losers. Instead, its job is to create a level playing field to let companies compete. In fact, if a company creates enough power that it controls the market and prevents competition, then the government intervenes and has the power to breakup companies or not approve their mergers.
When the COVID-19 crisis hit, there was enough risk, uncertainty and confusion that the government simply shut everything down. We were all asked to stay at home, and only essential services were authorized to be open. These actions certainly saved lives as we flattened the curve and prevented overwhelming our healthcare system.
Over time, we developed protocols for essential businesses, based on our developing understanding of how the disease was transmitted. Stores installed plexiglass at cashier counters, organized flow through their aisles, marked the floor to separate waiting customers, and required masks. Customers – the general public- came to understand the importance of following the protocols. We all began purchasing or making masks, and learned how to interact in the new public space.
As the curve of rising case count and hospitalizations from the coronavirus flattened, attention then turned to the process of reopening society. Governors across the country started defining timelines for reopening businesses. Approaches vary; but in many states, many major box stores are open while small businesses selling the same products must remain closed. The impact on small businesses and the economy in general cannot be overestimated, even with billions in stimulus spending; which brings its own problems. With a vaccine and its widespread implementation 18 to 24 months away, we cannot hide until the risk is over. Reopening those businesses, in a safe way, is the only sustainable path for our economy.
It is time to level the playing field to allow small businesses to reopen. Update the health and safety requirements for businesses to open, by type, and publish the rules. Allow any business meeting those criteria to open. Why should a grocery store be allowed to sell flowers, but a flower shop cannot open, even if they implement the same social distancing, plexiglass screens, masks and other policies in use at the grocery?
It is time for government to move back into its role of creating the rules and then enforcing them, not picking winners and losers.