“We think the most important thing, and we defer to the science on this, is that openings occur with the health and safety of everyone in mind,” said Julie Coons, president of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “We respect the governor’s guidance and requirements. Certainly, we have not had a single member suggesting otherwise.”
The desire of business and labor leaders to rely on science will help the two governors and mayor to resist pressure to lift shutdowns too early and risk a resurgence of the novel coronavirus.
That said, business and labor do differ somewhat on how to weigh the competing interests in a fissure similar to the one emerging in the political sphere.
Business places greater emphasis on moving earlier to ease the shutdowns, preferably by June, to contain the economic damage.
“It’s easy to caricature people who say, ‘reopen tomorrow,’ but we’ve got to move toward reopening some part of the economy, no question,” said former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, now chief executive of the Federal City Council.
“There is agony and pain and death [from the virus], but there’s also cascading damage to families and livelihoods from the closing of the economy,” Williams said.
Unions are more willing to wait until they’re certain of protecting the health of their members and the public.
“We shouldn’t put people’s lives at risk just because a few people want a spike in the stock market,” said Andrew D. Washington, interim president of the Washington Metropolitan Council AFL-CIO, whose member unions represent about 150,000 workers.
A similar divergence is appearing in political pressures in Maryland and Virginia.
On Saturday, protesters in Annapolis demanded an end to coronavirus-related restrictions in Maryland, and a group of the state’s Republican politicians encouraged Hogan to reopen the rural areas they represent.
Earlier that week, Virginia Republican Party Chairman Jack Wilson called on Northam to “begin the process of reopening Virginia now.” About 50 demonstrators at the state capitol in Richmond protested against stay-at-home orders, carrying signs reading, “We will not comply” and “8.6 million Virginians vs. 1 Tyrant.”
Businesses and unions are advising governments on what to do, and business has been especially active. No fewer than three business-led task forces have sprung up to offer guidance:
●●The Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce is heading a “Back to Work Leadership Task Force,” comprising other chambers of commerce and universities and colleges. It wants Northam to fund programs to help people whose jobs have disappeared to get training and credentials for new employment.
●DC2021, a coalition representing the restaurant, hotel and sports industries, testified at a D.C. Council hearing Thursday. They sought large tax breaks in light of the devastation that social distancing has wrought on their businesses, which rely on public gatherings and travel.
●The Greater Washington Board of Trade spearheaded creation of a Covid-19 Strategic Renewal Task Force with 35 members including Metro, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Consortium of Universities of the Metropolitan Washington Area. It will produce a report with detailed recommendations “to create a shared regional vision for accelerating economic recovery” in the region.
Board of Trade President Jack McDougle said it was necessary to get clear guidance from public health officials to avoid reopening too soon.
“We don’t want a second spike [in covid-19] that’s worse than the first,” McDougle said. “If we make a mistake, we think that runs a real risk of prolonging both the health crisis and all the disastrous economic fallout.”
But McDougle also said the region can’t wait for a “perfect solution,” partly because the country lacks adequate testing at present.
Although McDougle said it was impossible now to set a specific date to reopen, he was encouraged that elected officials seemed to be looking at May or June.
“If we shut down into the summer or fall, I’m not sure what that recovery looks like,” McDougle said.
In the hard-hit restaurant business, June might be too late for many owners.
Kathy E. Hollinger, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, said 40 percent of her 1,300 members were temporarily closed, and 60 percent were open but only for takeout and delivery. Of those currently open, she said, “a good percentage” could not afford to continue past May.
Worse, she said, many restaurants could not afford to reopen their dining rooms under the kind of strict social distancing guidelines that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending — with bars closed, servers wearing masks and gloves, and all diners sitting six feet apart.
“When it’s on-premise dining, if they are opened with only 20 percent allowable mandate [of customers], I don’t think they will choose to open,” she said.
But there’s also a recognition that people must feel safe before they return to restaurants or resume travel to Washington.
“If consumers are hearing that we opened too soon, or we made decisions that were not in their best interests overall, then we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Elliott L. Ferguson, president of Destination DC, the District’s lead tourism marketing organization.
Labor leaders were insistent that testing be widespread, and that all workers have protective equipment, before the economy reopens.
“Before anybody goes back to work, there needs to be testing for everyone,” said Washington of the AFL-CIO council.
John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, urged caution even though only about 120 hotel workers are still employed of the 7,200 whom he represents.
“People are going to be champing at the bit to get back to a semblance of regular activity. I think we have to be very careful,” Boardman said.
Hogan, Northam and Bowser got high marks for how they have handled the crisis.
“I do have full confidence in the mayor and our elected officials in the D.C. area to open the city and the states when the time is right,” said Jaime Contreras, who represents 20,000 airport workers, office cleaners and security guards as vice president for the Washington region of Local 32BJ SEIU.
Benjamin H. Wu, president of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp., praised Hogan for distancing himself from President Trump’s misinformation about covid-19.
“I do think at least businesses in Montgomery County and in Maryland have a great deal of confidence in the leadership that Governor Hogan has exerted,” Wu said. “They recognize it’s not only good for the state, but he’s setting the right tone as a national leader and head of the [National Governors Association] to push back on some of the things that have come out from the White House.”