Opinion: Creativity key to reopening battered but unbeaten economy

This column appeared in the May 1 print edition of the Arizona Capitol Times. You can view the survey referenced below here:

What does a successful reopening of the Arizona economy look like? Since the outset of Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry has been leading a weekly conference call with our colleagues in business organizations across the state attempting to answer that question.

Our groups’ members are responsible for thousands of jobs, but more than just comparing notes among ourselves, we’ve surveyed our members about the very real needs they’re facing during this time. Our survey isn’t scientific, but, nonetheless the findings underscore something most Arizonans already know — no segment of the Arizona economy has been left untouched by this pandemic’s impact.

Respondents to our survey represent employers of all stripes, from agriculture to financial services, lodging and hospitality to nonprofits.

When asked what coronavirus’ biggest effect on operations has been, the most common responses were that employers are continuing with the fewest employees possible to keep the doors open, or that they’ve furloughed employees, with the intent of bringing them back as soon as they’re able.

Of our respondents who said they’ve sought some sort of financial relief, more than 60% have applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the lifeline for employers to maintain their payrolls, make rent payments, or pay utility bills, reiterating why chambers of commerce across Arizona and other business associations have been so adamant about the need for Congress to ensure that this program and the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan program are adequately funded and that any business that needs help gets it. The PPP is expected for a second time to exhaust all of its funds, which means that Congress’ work on this issue is far from finished.

Obviously, there’s a tremendous sense of urgency among Arizona’s job creators. More than one-third of survey respondents told us they’ll only be able to sustain operations for another three months at most.

It’s against this backdrop that employers not only want to reopen the Arizona economy more fully, but that they also want to work alongside public health officials in designing the plans and protocols that will allow them to do so safely and responsibly, protecting their employees and customers, while limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

We’ve already seen Arizona employers make adjustments in order to keep serving their customers within CDC guidelines, including changing their usual hours of service in order to spread customer interactions throughout the workday, or allowing customers to make appointments. Others are installing partitions between employees and customers. Based on the feedback we’ve received, Arizonans can anticipate businesses adapting to meet the challenges of Covid-19, while still delivering a high level of customer service.

There is some hesitancy, however. More than half of the businesses that responded to our survey said they are concerned that they’ll be exposed to lawsuits from enterprising trial lawyers despite their best efforts to adhere to all state and federal guidelines and to protect their employees and customers.

No one’s looking for a free pass, but employers responsibly striving to stop the spread of a highly contagious virus should be able to concentrate on safely managing their workplaces, not on fending off questionable lawsuits.

Businesses are also concerned about a one-size-fits-all approach. What might work for one type of business, might not work for another.

Thriving small businesses are often successful because of creative individuals who have proven their ability to navigate unforeseen challenges. Public health officials at all levels of government can count on that ingenuity to develop solutions for increased workplace health and safety without imposing harsh regulations.

A successful reopening of the Arizona economy will, first and foremost, see a dramatic downturn in the spread of Covid-19. But it will also see the creativity and resourcefulness of Arizona’s job creators on full display as we return to work safely, responsibly, and maybe a little financially battered, but not beaten. Arizona’s business community agrees with Gov. Ducey that we can return stronger.

Courtney Coolidge is the vice president of government affairs for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

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