Is anyone feeling confident right now?
Vermont has been spared the worst of the pandemic so far. But even so, we’re dealing with constant uncertainty — and a financial calamity that’s just beginning to be felt.
And every day we’re one step closer to the fall, when coronavirus is likely to hit even harder.
Where do I even begin? Education seems the best place. Educators at all levels, not to mention parents, are furiously trying to develop plans that are subject to change on a moment’s notice. This week, Gov. Phil Scott identified September 8 as the first day of school — but that could mean in-person, online, or most likely a mix of the two. Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine sought to reassure the public that, as Levine put it, “In Vermont, this is the right time to open schools.”
Of course, in the same press conference, Education Secretary Dan French conceded that “This is uncharted territory that acknowledges a considerable amount of uncertainty and anxiety.”
This came a few days after Brigid Nease, superintendent of the Harwood Union Unified School District, posted a letter to her community outlining all the uncertainties and obstacles facing her staff. It’s worth reading, but what struck me was the complete lack of confidence that, even if it was safe to open schools, there may not be enough staff.
Letters of resignation, requests for leaves of absence, Family Medical Leave (FMLA), Emergency Family Medical Leave (EFML), Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL), Exemption status, and leave under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) (Which provides up to 12 weeks of leave for employees unable to work because their child’s school is closed) are coming in.
The truth is most school employees are scared to death they will get sick (or worse), bring the virus home to loved ones, have a student in their care become ill, or experience the death of a coworker.
Meanwhile, on the higher education front, colleges and universities are constantly fiddling with their reopening plans — all of which seem to be based on crossed fingers and an unfounded faith in the self-restraint of college students.
Administrators have come in for a lot of criticism for the obvious holes in their plans. But I can’t blame them; they’ve already taken a huge financial hit this year, and if they don’t reopen their campuses in the fall, the consequences will be devastating. You think independent colleges have seen hard times? You think the state college system has financial challenges?
It’ll get a hell of a lot worse if they can’t open their campuses — or, if they open up and then have to reverse course because of an outbreak.
Not to mention what it’ll mean to the economies of Burlington, Middlebury and other host communities if there are no students on campus for the indefinite future.
Before I continue, let’s make it clear that this isn’t just about the economy. Public health and safety come first. But each delay or closure will have significant economic impacts, and we should be prepared for that.
This week’s issue of Seven Days features a depressing story about our robust independent restaurant industry. The contents are no surprise, given a recent Yelp report that 60 percent of temporary Covid-related restaurant closures have become permanent. So far, Vermont’s situation isn’t nearly so dire — but if we limp through the rest of the year with limited operation at best, that situation isn’t going to last.
Even if our eateries were to suddenly get the “all clear,” how many people will return to their old habits? For me, it’ll be a long time before dining out not only feels safe — but also feels like fun again.
And the economic impact: Seven Days reports that the food service and accommodation sectors account for nearly 13 percent of Vermont’s non-government workforce — and for 25 percent of all continuing unemployment claims in the state.
As for the lodging industry, it seems all but certain they won’t get back to full operation anytime soon. How many casualties will there be if they go through an entire tourist season with limited revenue? How many more could be unemployed by the end of the year?
How much will be lost from Vermont’s lucrative rooms and meals tax?
Actually, Seven Days gives us a preview: Taxable restaurant revenue was down 42.7 percent in March, compared to March 2019.
And restaurants were open for business in the first half of the month. Yikes.
Vermont also faces an eviction crisis that’s merely disastrous, compared to the nationwide catastrophe heading our way. A new analysis finds that more than 40 percent of renters in America face evictions due to unemployment (and the expiration of the federal eviction moratorium, thanks Mitch).
In Vermont, that figure is “only” 22 percent. More than one in five renters.
Where are they all going to go?
Vermont’s great downtowns, large and small, get much of their vibrancy from the aforementioned eateries and from small retail stores. The New York Times has a sobering take on those retailers that defined their neighborhoods through decades in business — but that couldn’t survive the pandemic.
Many were especially reliant on repeat customers and foot traffic, and their income dried up almost overnight when the state shut down to stop the spread of the virus.
Their losses have not only left troubling holes in their neighborhoods but could signal even deeper trouble for other small ventures.
Honestly, I don’t know how the small retailers in my Montpelier are staying afloat. This is a city that looks prosperous — but a handful of vacancies would make a huge difference. Barre’s downtown seemed to be finally turning the corner after a number of false dawns (remember LACE, anyone?); the pandemic could wipe out its hard-won gains.
One big aftershock that’s definitely coming: Cutbacks in the public sector due to fallen tax revenues. When the state, cities and towns start slashing workforce, there’s that much less money flowing into the economy.
This, at a time when demands for public services are likely to rise, if not skyrocket. We’ve got crises brewing in health care, mental health, addiction services, social services and more. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see an uptick in workforce departures from those sectors.
This is just a sampling. The weaknesses in our society and our economy have been laid bare due to a temporary stoppage in the normal course of things. It’s only going to get better in fits and starts. With each passing day, the long-term impacts will be more and more severe — and unpredictable.
We aren’t in charge. The governor isn’t in charge. Your superintendent or principal or university administrator isn’t in charge. Your boss isn’t in charge.
The virus is in charge.