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Local officials know these facts; businesses know them too. But getting in the way of the obvious public-health move is the reality that the federal government has done nothing—a miserable, unforgivable, death-and-destruction-inducing nothing—since the spring, when the Paycheck Protection Program provided establishments with forgivable loans to keep their lights on. That money is long gone, and no aggressive federal public-health policy or extended stimulus has taken its place. As a result, many state and local governments have had little choice but to let restaurants stay open or reopen at reduced capacity, not enough to bring the industry back but more than enough to keep spreading the coronavirus around. To try to keep patrons and workers safe, the businesses themselves have had to set up plastic dining igloos, install ventilation systems, and rejigger their operations—all expensive investments that might end up being for naught.
The situation is existential for restaurants. As of August, consumer spending on them was down by a third compared with last year, and the National Restaurant Association is projecting that casual noodle joints, Michelin-starred establishments, and everything in between will lose out on $240 billion in sales this year. Some 2.3 million food-service jobs have evaporated, and one in six restaurants have closed, either permanently or for a long hiatus. Two in five restaurants report that they will not make it another six months, if current conditions persist (conditions that are getting worse!). The situation is existential for thousands of people too.
The answer is obvious: Bail out state and local governments. Bail out the restaurants and bars. Bail out workers. Bail out everyone. Put somewhat more academically: In this strange and awful pandemic, economic stimulus is a neglected and underutilized public-health tool that improves the decision architecture for all actors, from individual households and workers to private businesses to government officials.
Start with individuals. The pandemic has proved true over and over again what was already well known: that income and wealth are protective when it comes to health. Having a savings account to dip into or a considerable salary to rely on means having the ability to say no to an ill-advised work outing to an indoor restaurant or a Saturday-night shift in a too-crowded bar. Having a $600 boost to your unemployment-insurance checks or a sudden $1,200 in your pocket means being able to turn down a frontline job if you have a preexisting health condition, or being able to walk away from a workplace where people refuse to wear masks. More direct stimulus for families now will mean better decision making during this deadly surge.
Annie Lowrey: America chose sickness and lost the economy