April 06, 2020
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Protecting America’s backbone from the coronavirus

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
A bare West Market Square in downtown Bangor. The activity along Main Street has slowed down since the coronavirus hit Maine.

As of 11:30 a.m. Monday, March 23, 107 Maine residents have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

My great-grandfather Julius used to say, “Small businesses are the backbone of America.” He immigrated here from Romania with just enough money to buy a loaf of bread and apprenticed as a tailor before eventually opening his own men’s clothing store. We’ve all heard the phrase “America’s backbone” so many times that it has become cliche. But it’s cliche for a reason.

Small businesses play a crucial economic role in our state, making up 99 percent of all businesses and employing 57 percent of the private workforce. They help to form a cyclical, regenerative economy that supports all of our communities. Main Street businesses also help to create the sense of place that makes our communities feel like home.

Small businesses truly are the backbone of America, but the COVID-19 pandemic, the illness caused by the coronavirus, threatens them all. If we don’t act swiftly to protect that backbone, it will paralyze our economy, our communities and our nation.

Unfortunately, the crisis is not ending anytime soon. On Wednesday a leaked federal government report showed that the pandemic could last 18 months or more. That means we have to implement policies that support small-business owners, workers and communities for the long haul. Here is a blueprint to save America’s backbone:

Direct and immediate cash flow to small businesses affected by COVID-19. Congress is proposing direct cash assistance for American households. This is laudable, but will not really help most small businesses. Even if consumers have more money in their pockets, they will not be able to spend it during a quarantine.

The Small Business Administration has been offering low-interest loans to small businesses. However, given that this crisis has no end in sight, small-business owners are rightfully wary at taking on loans, regardless of the interest rate.

What small-business owners need is direct cash assistance in order to not go under. They need to keep their employees paid, cover their health insurance premiums and paid sick time, and pay rent. Sen. Susan Collins has proposed an innovative solution of providing small-business owners with $300 billion in federal loans that would be forgiven if they keep paying their workers, but it is not enough. The Main Street Emergency Grant Program would double Collins’ proposal, granting small-business owners $600 billion in much-needed liquidity. The Senate should go even beyond that, granting more than $1 trillion to save our Main Street businesses. It is far less than what we have already spent to support Wall Street.

Unemployment insurance, paid sick days and paid family and medical leave. Gov. Janet Mills took an important step in waiving the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits and by extending unemployment eligibility to all workers impacted by the virus. While Maine has passed a landmark paid sick time law, Mills has unfortunately said she will not speed up the timeline to implement the law, which will not go into effect until January 2021. At the federal level, Collins’ vote for a giant paid sick leave loophole for companies with more than 500 employees, means that relief for many workers remains out of reach. Without policies like paid sick leave, workers will feel compelled to come into work sick, a dangerous proposal in the midst of a pandemic.

A moratorium on all evictions, foreclosures and utility shut-offs. Maine has already taken the admirable step of halting all utility disconnections until further notice. It should also restore service to all households that now have their utilities shut off and there should be a federal moratorium on utility shut-offs until the pandemic has passed.

Many housing activists are rightly calling for a national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. That should also extend to small-business owners, who have enough to worry about without being evicted or losing their business during this crisis.

Affordable, accessible health care. Many small-business owners are unable to afford health insurance coverage for themselves and their employees. Our businesses and our society are only as healthy as the least healthy person in them. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has released an emergency response to COVID-19 that, among other things, would empower Medicare to cover all medical care during this crisis, a cost that most small-business owners cannot take on themselves.

How we support our small businesses during these coming weeks and months will impact our economy and our communities for decades to come. The Walmarts and Amazons of the world are going to be fine, but if we don’t do enough to support small businesses during this unprecedented pandemic, very few Main Street businesses will be left when this is over.

Let our elected officials know that we need to stop treating small businesses like tonsils or an appendix and treat them like what they really are — the backbone of America.

Adam Zuckerman is the director of the Maine Small Business Coalition.

 


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