Our Business May Not Turn 32, After D.C. Took a Sledgehammer To It

Our Business May Not Turn 32, After D.C. Took a Sledgehammer To It
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Our family business may or may not turn 32 this fall. My husband and I have survived for more than three decades in specialty retail, selling women's clothing to professionals who work in Washington, DC. Changing dress codes, the rise of online shopping, and even the emerging ethos of owning less are among the challenges we face and surmount through hard work, taking risks and endless refinement of products and business practices. None of those obstacles compares, however, with the DC government’s sledgehammer decree that non-essential businesses must close.

No amount of work, investment or risk-taking serves any business owner when the means of making a living are unilaterally denied. My seasonal worry about whether our investment will resonate with customers disappeared with the new reality that public officials, pandering to panic over prudence, stopped the economy and made rent payments for owners and employees alike an imminent disaster. Too little thought is given to the economy’s on-the-ground realities and the essential role that businesses play.

We need all kinds of businesses, from the one person handyman services to mega-corporations that deliver goods produced in every corner of the world to every buyer who wants them. We rely on businesses utterly - it’s how we trade for what we can’t make ourselves. The best business owners thrive because their personal integrity informs every aspect of their operations, and customers choose the products and services of companies that earn their trust. Even with its flaws and failures, trading with one another beats the alternative - using force to take from one another. That’s why the web of business is so important - it creates and reinforces the best in our nature - innovation, production, and cooperation - while mitigating our tendencies to crush, control and consume without care for the future. 

Right now, the worst tendencies of our nature rule. The official response to COVID-19 is both fear-based and cynical. Despite insufficient knowledge of transmission, despite insufficient testing to have a sense of how many people have or have had the virus, and despite the resultant lack of understanding of the virus’s lethality, our businesses are being crushed. 

The taking of our ability to earn a living came with an even deeper strike at our cooperative commercial system. Government officials - without any public discussion - upended all the rules and norms that allow businesses to function, offering pittances of printed money in compensation for consuming the savings and credit that make the unknowable future easier to manage. 

No matter how this crisis ends, officials will be able to allege that their draconian measures and the resulting economic devastation were warranted – that our fate would have been even worse if they hadn’t acted so decisively and courageously. And who will be able to argue with such self-serving rhetoric? You can’t prove a negative.

But we can and should start petitioning for the freedom to reopen now. Allowing commerce to recommence would begin to restore the financial and social vitality our businesses create. A more sensible approach to minimize the risks of covid-19 involves a mix of private and public actions:   

  • Help those who are truly vulnerable stay isolated 
  • Test huge swaths of the population so that we can better understand transmission, rates of infection, and antibody production
  • Eliminate regulatory roadblocks on the production and distribution of drugs and medical equipment so that patients with acute cases can be properly treated 
  • Continue expedited work on fast and accurate tests, vaccines, and cures
  • Refine procedures for handling the next epidemic or biothreat.

A vibrant economy with functioning businesses is key to supporting all of the above while simultaneously providing customers with the goods, services, and community touchstones on which they depend.

Betsy Fisher is a small business owner in Washington, D.C.

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