“Are you going to pay my rent?” Van Happen asks, with one official responding that he won't. “Well, if you're not going to pay my rent, I'm not closing.”
The video has gone viral, including being favorited on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr. The contrast between a small-business owner trying to keep his doors open and government officials demanding seemingly fungible standards for operation has been a common tension over the past nine months, encapsulating much of what conservatives dislike about government and seemingly reinforcing the idea that the pandemic is being used to constrain personal liberties.
Conservative media — both leading and following conservative sentiment, as usual — has embraced the conflict in its coverage. Over the past month, Fox News has been as focused on closures aimed at preventing the virus’s spread as on the spread itself.
It’s not a mystery why. Even were coverage of the virus’s toll not seen as an implicit rebuke of President Trump, the narrative of a government crackdown on bars and restaurants would be hard for Fox to resist.
But the idea that America must pick between protecting small businesses and limiting new infections is incorrect. It’s a false choice between financially secure employers and healthy people. There’s a third way, which Van Happen inadvertently articulates: Pay businesses to be closed.
This is what the government did at the outset of the pandemic, in fact. The Paycheck Protection Program passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump was designed specifically to help small businesses cover payroll and pay expenses while remaining closed. Between April and August, hundreds of millions of dollars of loans were issued, debts that would be forgiven assuming businesses met particular qualifications for inclusion. It wasn’t a cure for the problem, but it helped.
After August, though, the program ground to a halt. The immediate impact was reduced given that the country was seeing a relative lull in new cases at the time. Businesses were largely open, because states had effectively suppressed new cases, as in New York, and because executives were eager to resume normal economic activity. A month later, though, cases began to surge again.
When the PPP ended on Aug. 8, the country was seeing an average of 53,700 new infections each day, down from a midsummer peak of about 67,000. By Sept. 12, new cases were down to 34,400, the lowest point since spring. But by Oct. 12, the number was back over 50,000. By Nov. 12, the number of new cases each day was over 133,000. By Dec. 12, it was more than 213,000.
States such as California are now seeing more cases than at any prior point in the pandemic and, as a result, are enacting new measures aimed at closing businesses. This time, though, there’s no support from the federal government for businesses such as Van Happen’s.
Van Happen has been overt in rejecting guidelines aimed at containing the virus. His confrontation with city officials stemmed from a deliberate decision to oppose a ban on outdoor dining that had been a focal point of criticism. But that doesn’t make his quandary insincere: He has rent to cover and employees to pay, goals that can be in conflict with efforts to limit person-to-person contact as the virus rages.
One partial solution being discussed in Congress is offering businesses protections from lawsuits stemming from possible infections among employees or customers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made such protections an essential part of any further coronavirus relief packages that might be negotiated on Capitol Hill. Such a policy wouldn’t cover Van Happen’s rent, but it would mean that he could feel more confident in remaining open, since he wouldn’t be held responsible should someone get sick.
But that’s small consolation for the person who gets sick. The point of restrictions on interactions is to keep people from being infected, not to limit the economic fallout if they do. Absolving businesses of responsibility for infections would probably run counter to the goal of containing the virus, encouraging businesses such as Van Happen’s to remain open at moments when health officials think they should be closed.
What’s remarkable is that the pandemic has blanketed the United States for nine months and this tension still exists. We know now that the most common vector for infection is indoor interactions in places such as restaurants and bars. We know that we can provide financial help to those sorts of businesses while keeping them closed — an option that Van Happen, at least, is practically begging for.
But we also know that the conflict between government and business presented by the pandemic is a politically potent one, one that Trump has encouraged and conservative media has embraced. There’s little question that Fox News and many congressional Republicans would rather engage in a cultural fight over the virus than endorse expanding the federal deficit over the short term.
So we debate this choice that isn’t a complete choice, like being offered either a laxative or an emetic for dinner. There’s some moldy bread sitting right there — not appetizing, certainly, but still an option.