Friday afternoon, just a few hours before Mayor Ethan Berkowtiz issued his citywide ‘hunker down’ order, I connected on the phone with a very busy Bill Popp, President of the non-profit Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.
Popp’s PR people had reached out trying to promote a directory of the restaurants in town remaining open for takeout service, which I was excited about because we’d spent days compiling a list of our own and it would save us a lot of trouble just using theirs.
Considering Popp was named to the Economic Resiliency Task Force on Economic Damage, put together by the muni in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, I have to assume Popp knew what Berkowitz had planned later that night.
“We’re looking at public-private partnerships and starting to get things in motion,” Popp said Friday afternoon. “Part of this problem is this damn situation changes by the hour, requiring new strategies. Half the things we’ll talk about at a Thursday meeting change (later the same day)... The entire Anchorage economy is in a cash-crunch. In the business sector, they’re cash-poor, trying to work both sides of the ledger. This requires rapid response. If an agency or a politician is thinking about months for a solution, it’s not going to get done — it’s too late. Strategies and solutions need to be deployed in weeks or days; otherwise we’re going to lose a lot of businesses.”
Among the most cash-strapped businesses are restaurants, which four days earlier got the devastating news from the mayor that they would have to close to all dine-in customers by 5 that afternoon. Popp said he was OK with the way Berkowitz handled the Monday announcement.
“He gave ‘em a day and the governor did the same thing, and honestly, there’s no good way to deliver that news,” Popp said. “It’s a public health crisis and these are public gathering places. As public health policy I think it is the right thing to do, even though it created a lot of sudden pain. There’s a lot of consternation in that sector, but I don’t know what else he could have done.”
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why the AEDC was promoting a takeout directory even as the mayor was readying a message to ‘hunker down’ and not to go out in public for any non-essential services. As important as supporting local restaurants might be, it’s in no way an essential service. You could just as easily prepare food at home or through the drive-thru at a fast food joint, and besides, with the possible exception of Lucky Wishbone — which already had a built-in drive-thru clientele — few of these businesses can actually be breaking even by staying open, and on Sunday, two of downtown’s busiest restaurants — Glacier Brewhouse and Humpy’s — gave up the ghost.
Is encouraging them to stay open not openly flouting the city’s decree to stay in unless you have to? And rather than try to mitigate the economic pain by only gradually stripping restaurants’ liberty to prosper, why not instead take a deep dive into the suppression strategy, rip off the proverbial band-aid and shut everything down, the very maneuver that every community that has been stricken by the virus says it wishes it had done, in retrospect.
“The evidence makes our responsibility clear,” Berkowitz said in the Friday night decree. “We must do everything we can to slow the spread of this lethal virus. Our first responders, our doctors, our neighbors – our community is counting on us to hunker down.”
Other business types shuttered included, but were not limited to “... shoe stores, hair salons and barber shops, nail salons, clothing stores, makeup stores, jewelry stores, car dealerships (service and parts may remain open), tattoo parlors, acupuncture, art studios, and sporting goods stores, in-home housekeeping services, babysitting (except to provide support for critical workers). This is in addition to the closure of gyms, movie theaters, indoor recreation centers, bowling alleys, and nightclubs that were closed by EO-01. Non-critical businesses must close their premises; it is not acceptable to simply transform to a curbside or delivery business as that still places too many workers and customers in harm’s way for a non-critical purpose.”
Among the list of businesses allowed to stay open are cannabis shops, which Berkowitz specified as being exempt from the order.
You can’t help but chuckle that in just a few short years, weed has gone from an illegal ‘gateway drug’ — the black market sales of which still have people locked up for years to come — to a critical and essential service.
The fact that pot shops remain open and their sales are maybe as strong as ever, points to the real aim of the mitigation strategy, in general, which is that it’s not so much about preventing the spread of the virus as it is delaying riots in the streets.
“I’d be real concerned about using the word ‘riots’,” Popp cautioned. “It depends on the solutions we come up with to help sustain people and through the deployment of those sorts of efforts. If we’re really serious about coming up with solutions; if we get the right policies in place and enough support to carry individuals and businesses through with the right mix of cash injections and cost relief and anything else that is needed, we have a reasonable chance of riding it out.”
Cannabis shops may be the last band-aid that keeps the mitigation approach to the epidemic. If people are stoned, they’re more likely to stay home, be self-reflective and peaceable, at least for a while. Without that tenuous last strand, people out of work with bills to pay and mouths to feed will take to the streets, Coronavirus exposure be damned.
Whether these wind up being peaceful protests or riotous looting, doesn’t matter much; the quarantine will have been broken and the mitigation approach will not only have failed to contain the virus, it will have pointlessly destroyed the economy along the way.
It won’t happen in Anchorage first, but in bigger cities down below, there is no way this pouring out into the streets won’t happen before a vaccine is developed. I’ll be surprised if in New York or Los Angeles or Seattle we don’t see it happen before month’s end.
Of the three available approaches — do nothing, mitigation or suppression — only mitigation carries no possibility of solution. All it does is buy time that doesn’t exist.
The Municipality of Anchorage would do all the service industry businesses and the 15,000 workers they employ — or at least used to employ — a real favor if they were to stop teasing them with piecemeal restrictions, and instead rip off the band-aid and shut the whole thing down.
Do keep the pot shops open to the bitter end, though. We’re gonna need them.