How and When to Reopen - There Is No Easy Answer

How and When to Reopen - There Is No Easy Answer

No doubt the past seven weeks have been some of the most challenging times in many of our lives. I'm not old enough to have lived through the Great Depression, WWII, or the Vietnam War. I didn't know anyone (directly) who perished on 9/11. I know people who lost their jobs during the 2008-09 recession, but it's nothing compared to what I'm seeing right now. 

Working with hundreds of businesses, here at the Chamber we've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. We're fortunate in Gardner that many businesses have so far been spared, though we are starting to slowly see some losses (like the upcoming closure of The Locale in Downtown Gardner). But for me personally, the biggest challenge I see is the division in our community, in all communities, about who, how and why businesses and community assets should reopen. Politics and opinions aside, there's something missing in all of the arguments, which seem to be rooted in the "my rights" vs. "everyone's rights" argument - money.

It's one thing to say that everything should be opened and people can make their own decisions whether or not they want to go out. If we reopen everything, no one is forcing us to leave our home. It would allow business owners to resume operations, earn income and begin to make a living once again. On the other side, besides the required trips for groceries, maybe gas, the doctor's, etc., we could in theory continue with 'staying-at-home' for much longer (not that it would be good for our mental health, but that's another story). The views on COVID-19 are varied, regardless of the science or the politics behind it. The louder argument lately is from those individuals that assert it's their right to go out and they want businesses, their own or their neighbor's, to be open if they want to be. Again, from a business perspective, I'd love to see more businesses open, operating safely within a suggested/required set of guidelines to keep both their employees and customers safe. What about community assets though?

Summer is defined by many households by how much time they spend at the pool or the ball fields and my family is much the same. A week doesn't go by where we don't spend at least 4 days at one of the two, sometimes as many as all seven. It's a luxury we can afford and it brings us a lot of happiness. We pay our share, whether it's a daily family pool pass of $20 or a couple hundred dollars for our daughter to play on a softball team for several months. In both cases, the price we pay (X) is based on the number of people that also participate (Y). So using the pool as an example, let's say it has a $500/day budget to break even. It's $5/person to get in, so it needs 100 people a day to make it's budgeted numbers. But we know from some research already that 50% of the population is not going to be ready to go to the pool for 3 months (essentially the entire summer). We can roughly assume that means each day attendance at the pool will be 50 people, netting the coffers $250/day - 50% short of what they need to make budget. Thus, the pool owner (in this case we'll say a city), has to decide how to make up for that loss. Taxes are always the least palatable solution, so we'll take that off the table altogether. Now they can either raise the price to $10/person/day or find money from somewhere else. Both of those solutions create additional issues. The former, means that less people might go to the pool, either because it's not worth $10 to them or they can't afford it. That latter means we pull money from somewhere else and God knows getting agreement on that is difficult for city officials, let alone the community. We're not the federal government so we can't just make more money or issue more debt. So it's really a business decision (and one that businesses grapple with all the time), "If I raise my prices, will enough people still come that we can hit that break even point and cover our costs?"

One of the more radical (and prudent) things I've suggested to some businesses that are ready to reopen is that they should think hard about raising their prices. They are dealing with unprecedented issues, from needing to stock adequate PPE supplies to shrinking their footprint by 50% or more in many cases to account for social distancing. It only makes sense that if you have half the amount of customers you normally do, you need them to spend more $$ to offset the loss. And sure, some customers might not be able to afford the services they used to, but many would argue it's a privilege to get your hair or nails done monthly, to eat out three times a week, or to get your favorite coffee on a daily basis. 

The bottom line is the market is changing. It's changing for businesses. It's changing for government. It's changing everywhere. Everyone want the economy to reopen. Some now, some later. And ultimately it will. But viewing it through only the lens of it's 'my right to be safe from you' or 'my right to do as I please' is short-sighted and will ultimately fail us. So dig deeper - not just for knowledge or in your pockets, but in your understanding of what reopening the economy is all about. We are all in this together and we will be successful if we all come out of it together. 

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