This spring, many of these industries took a dramatic financial hit after states imposed broad stay-at-home orders to arrest the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The abrupt halt to economic activity saved countless lives, even as it thrust tens of millions out of work and closed some businesses for good.
States relaxed some of their restrictions this summer, but the swift resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall — as record caseloads now threaten to overwhelm hospitals — has forced some governors and legislators to rethink their approach. In some instances, state officials have faced a groundswell of opposition as businesses aim to rile residents, relax state rules or hold new ones at bay.
In New York, for example, a trade association representing movie theaters has urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) to allow the industry to reopen even as cases continue to climb. The Global Cinema Federation asserted in a letter to Cuomo last month that there are “no covid-19 cases linked to movie theaters anywhere in the world.”
Cuomo ultimately offered the industry a break and allowed theaters outside of New York City to reopen at 25 percent capacity. However, he has kept screens dark in the city’s five boroughs as infections there tick higher. Undeterred, the National Association of Theatre Owners, another industry trade group, intensified its campaign in November. Its New York chapter pleaded with the governor to reopen city theaters in time for the next Wonder Woman film, stressing that Cuomo could still “save the one big Christmas movie” left on the calendar, said Joe Masher, the organization’s chief operating officer.
“It’s had total devastation on our industry,” Masher said.
The lobbying barrage arrives as epidemiologists continue to sound the alarms about the country’s latest, and perhaps deadliest, coronavirus surge since March. Shattering records, the U.S. daily caseload topped 177,000 new cases on Friday, with spikes in Midwestern states where Republican governors have eschewed mask mandates and other new restrictions.
“The concern about exceeding health-care capacity is real,” said David Rubin, the director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
In recent days, public-health officials — including those advising President-elect Joe Biden — have signaled the need for new, targeted closures to stop the spread of the coronavirus in places where infections are running high. Virginia on Friday joined a growing roster of states instituting a slew of new rules, including limits on indoor gatherings and an earlier cutoff on alcohol sales at night.
States including Illinois and Rhode Island, meanwhile, have warned about more drastic measures on the horizons, including stay-home orders that mirror some of the aggressive mandates they imposed earlier this spring. Illinois in particular reported more than 15,000 new coronavirus cases on Friday and a seven-day test positivity rate exceeding 14 percent, prompting Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) and state health authorities to beg the public to take heed.
“If things don’t take a turn in the coming days,” Pritzker warned on Thursday, “we will quickly reach the point when some form of a mandatory stay-at-home order is all that will be left.”
But Pritzker and other governors have clashed at times with local business leaders who say another round of closures could cause lasting economic harm. The Illinois Restaurant Association, for example, mobilized Wednesday in response to the governor’s recent rule barring all indoor dining. The group took to social media to try to drum up public support against the order, which its president, Sam Toia, said would leave thousands of workers unemployed.
“If it’s that bad, why are we the only industry being closed down? We know how to do this right,” said Toia, who stressed indoor dining is safe.
A coalition of bar owners in Pennsylvania similarly has lobbied for more indoor dining and drinking. The industry aims to override Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who recently vetoed a hospitality-backed measure that would have loosened local restrictions. And Massachusetts’s restaurant lobbyists have targeted Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s curfew requiring restaurants to stop serving at 9:30 p.m. Bob Luz, the leader of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said thousands of area establishments want the governor to extend the hours given that few confirmed covid-19 cases can be traced back to public dining.
“They can’t afford to bleed even a little at this point,” Luz said. “The last thing a restaurateur wants is to put employees back on furlough.”
Restaurateurs, bar owners and other hospitality businesses have been some of the hardest hit in a pandemic that has turned social proximity into a deadly risk. More than 2.1 million workers in the industry were unemployed in October, according to the federal labor data. But the economic hardship wrought by the coronavirus has been far more widespread, prompting hospitality leaders to join a full array of industries calling on Washington to authorize additional stimulus aid — largely to no avail.
On Capitol Hill, Democrat-led efforts to authorize trillions of dollars in fresh stimulus spending have instead met fierce opposition from Republicans, who balk at the price tag and point to recent improvements in the economy. Since the election, the two parties have grown further apart on a successor to the $2 trillion Cares Act, even as many of its programs meant to help workers and businesses have run out of funding or expired. President Trump, meanwhile, called on Congress in a tweet Saturday to “do a Covid Relief Bill,” saying Democrats need to support the measure — even though party leaders in the House adopted a bill months ago.
The stalemate over federal coronavirus aid has fueled some of the resistance nationwide toward another round of coronavirus-related shutdowns. In Oregon, for example, a broad coalition representing local gyms, restaurants, hotels, wineries and other businesses pointed to the loss of enhanced federal unemployment and small business assistance as it urged Democratic Gov. Kate Brown against adopting “any future business closures or curtailed operations.” Brown on Friday imposed a two-week halt on everything from office buildings to zoos in an attempt to bring the state’s outbreak back under control.
“We’re very concerned about closing businesses now,” said Sandra McDonough, president of Oregon Business and Industry, an advocacy group that is part of the coalition. “And we’re not sure that’s really going to address the spread, that’s the issue.” The group instead called on the state to redouble its efforts on testing and focus on the spread of covid-19 through private social gatherings, particularly ahead of Thanksgiving.
The arrival of the lucrative holiday season has added even more urgency to some of the lobbying efforts. More than half of Americans say they aren’t planning any holiday travel this year, according to a poll conducted by the U.S. Travel Association. More than a quarter of Americans say they expect to spend less on gifts over the coming weeks, according to a survey conducted by Gallup.
The downturn threatens to deliver another blow to some retailers that have already experienced significant revenue shortfalls this year. The potential for additional sky-high losses appears to have emboldened the industry to look more skeptically — and fight more aggressively — against new or heightened restrictions viewed as onerous for some retailers. The National Retail Federation, for example, has taken aim at states including New Mexico, which under an order issued in October required shops to close if they experience four or more workplace cases of covid-19 over a two-week period.
NRF invoked state open-records law Tuesday to try to force New Mexico’s leaders to turn over more information about how they devised the policy in the first place. Stephanie Martz, the retail lobby’s general counsel, said the group is likely to oppose the kind of broad shutdowns many states instituted in the spring. “We know more about how this spread than we did in March,” she said on Friday. “The answer cannot be that we make the same decisions now that we made in March.”
Hours later, New Mexico had done precisely that. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the state’s governor, imposed a two-week lockdown shuttering shops, gyms and other businesses deemed nonessential. In doing so, she stressed the state had tried “targeted crackdowns” and other measures to bring the pandemic under control for months — without success.
“The public health data make clear, however, that more aggressive restrictions are not only warranted but essential if we are to prevent mass casualties,” she said.