Utahns are always at war: Religious wars. Liquor wars. Urban vs. rural wars. Thus, it should surprise no one that strategies for dealing with COVID-19 quickly were parsed along political lines. And now, after months of fumbled responses, the damage is done. And we have to ask why the state has done so little to help the hospitality industry during COVID-19.
It began when Utah deemed certain businesses "essential" and others "non-essential." Some businesses were allowed to remain open, others were closed. You could go to the liquor store, but not a pub; to a grocery store but not a restaurant; to a home-improvement big box store but not a self-improvement service like a barber. Since essential businesses stayed open, they didn't have to enforce strict policies during the initial months of the pandemic.
From March to June, for example, state-run liquor stores did not require masks even while they had long lines forming outside all day long. Employees weren't required to wear masks, either, so many didn't. As a result, several stores had to briefly close due to COVID-19 contamination. Whether closed or open, all businesses asked for just one thing from our government: leadership.
The state put the burden of containment on the people from the start, which allowed Utah to become sicker as a result. When the state began to reopen the economy on May 1, its official policy was one of hands-off: "We hope you do the right thing, citizens. See ya!" Consumer confidence was low and got lower. It will remain low as long as our elected officials continue to mishandle the pandemic response. Our mom and pop independent shops are the casualties.
Reopening has not been smooth sailing. There is already discussion about again closing down Utah bars. However, that's based on scattered political and religious opinion, not reality. So far, COVID-19 spread in Utah is not linked to the hospitality industry that has by and large been incredibly careful regarding masks and sanitizer. They aren't openly defying state guidelines, which is what is happening in other states. They want to get through this just like everybody else—pay the bills and go home.
However, the imposed health mandates mean most of them are operating at less than 50% capacity. That is not sustainable because they still are burdened with 100% of the liability. The state Rainy Day Fund is full of dollars taken from Utah's hospitality industry. Give some back! Navigating the pandemic has been a nightmare for the service and hospitality industries—with little help along the way.
Bars were shut down for the better part of two months, and many remain closed today. How many of us can survive without any income for that long? Many that reopened (as well as other businesses) have been shamed for doing so. They get beat up online for requiring masks. They had no choice. How about this, Gov. Herbert: How about you fine or penalize people who don't wear masks? Not doing so means you're just pushing the responsibility onto business owners. Is Utah really business friendly?
Financial relief programs are not bridging the gap. Nearly all the businesses that got funding from the Paycheck Protection Program had to spend those dollars in just eight weeks while many remained closed with no revenue coming in. The state also gave out small loans, but they were disbursed more than three months ago. The state's Rainy Day Fund waits for rain—not people dying, apparently. And, the Salt Lake County rent grant was only good for businesses that did not receive relief from other sources.
Also, much of the "relief" was in the form of loans. The botched pandemic response was not the fault of small-business owners. Not only were they asked to forgo income, but they have been forced into debt in order to keep their livelihoods intact. Other nations that have contained this virus have a strong social net for terrifying scenarios like this. Yet, the "richest" country in the world does not.
We are too busy fighting class wars to count losses that don't include case numbers and deaths—losses such as newspapers. Initial reports called COVID-19 the "alt-weekly killer," and many of our friends in the newspaper industry have stopped publishing. We have no vaccine. Nearly our entire business streams have dried up.
But as long as we are able, we will remain an advocate for local small businesses. Our business model is also directly tied to the sponsorship of community gatherings, not only those of local arts organizations but also those events of our own making, such as the Utah Beer Festival and others. Utah has forced all of the above to close or operate within revenue reducing parameters but has not given any real guidance or plan. Utah's idea of a plan is just a suggestion, a "challenge." That means Utahns and Utah businesses are dying on Gov. Herbert's watch; it's foretelling of what will come if Spencer Cox is elected.
Here's what they could do: Offer landlord subsidies in the form of full payment or tax credits, defer sales taxes for small businesses, suspend DABC license fees and grant alcohol discounts to license holders, defer utility payments, mandate personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements so that hospitality workers don't take the brunt of government inaction, freely distribute PPE and, finally, allow cocktails to go. Take this seriously and do something!
If you appreciate the positive effects of having thriving locally owned small businesses—those that support City Weekly and other local media, nonprofits and community efforts—then we hope you'll find ways to locate and patronize such establishments. And do so safely. Our friends in the small-business community need our support now more than ever.
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