When this coronavirus pandemic started and our businesses largely shut down, a thing I heard people saying over and over again was, “We’re all in this together.”
It was a nice sentiment, expressed in meals donated to hospital front line workers, sewing groups turning out cloth masks by the hundreds, people rallying to order takeout from shuttered restaurants to keep the businesses afloat. I wrote about many of these efforts, and there was a sense that in a shared struggle, we could lean on each other, and we would get through.
Now, I’m not so sure that’s true, that idea that we’re all in this together.
It may have been terribly naive, in fact. We know, now, that the virus does not impact us all equally. Black and Latino people are disproportionately far more likely to both get sick and to die from this virus. While some people — myself included — transitioned fairly seamlessly to working from home and can social distance as long as we need to, others have little choice but to keep working, sometimes in unsafe conditions. In Iowa, some of our biggest outbreaks have been at meatpacking plants, where most of the employees are immigrants and people of color. Protections like extended unemployment benefits and pauses on evictions for those who have been laid off in our tanking economy are running out.
The pandemic continues, but our businesses are back open. Despite cases rising again in Iowa, many people are resistant to wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines. On the Facebook groups that were started to support small businesses, people turn to sniping at each other in the comments if someone asks if a certain business requires masks.
And then there are the rumors about which businesses have had employees test positive for the coronavirus. They swirl through the comments sections, in some cases name calling and finger pointing growing to fever pitches. Many restaurants have been upfront and posted the information when someone has tested positive and they closed to clean. Others probably have not, and we will never know. Because here’s the thing: It is up to each individual business owner, and each person, whether he or she discloses this information to co-workers and customers. They’re under no legal obligation to do so.
And there is no assistance for these businesses if they close. The state and federal government offered some limited financial aid when the shutdowns began, but it was quickly gone, and not every business that applied received help. Any ongoing closures and losses due to employees testing positive are on those businesses to shoulder alone.
Closing and sending everyone exposed to someone with coronavirus home may be the responsible thing to do. But most restaurants and bars operate on razor thin margins in the best of times. With no penalties except to their conscience — or their reputation — if they don’t take action and no assistance if they do, the system is set up to say to those business owners they are on their own.
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I’ve seen many business owners saying they feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they want to do what’s safest for their families and community, which would mean staying closed until this is all over. On the other hand, they want to keep the business they’ve built going and keep themselves and their staff employed. They have bills to pay, and so do their staff. There are no easy answers.
It’s also up to each customer to understand that going out to any restaurant or bar means taking a risk. Community spread means that anyone you interact with, including the asymptomatic, may have the virus. You may have the virus and be spreading it to them, too. The responsibility is on all of us, not just the business owners.
So, in one sense, yes, we are still all in this together. One person out, not wearing a mask and not social distancing, can catch this and spread it to dozens of other people as they move from business to business, gathering to gathering. That person’s actions ripple out from them to impact us all. But when it comes to facing the consequences of this thing? No, when it comes to that, it is very clear that we’re each on our own.
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