The decision to ‘re-open’ the economy shouldn’t be government’s to make

Michael Schaus

Destroying the financial hopes and dreams of thousands of Nevadans should have never been seen as the only way to combat a pandemic. And given the depth of the financial harm this shutdown has caused, getting people back to earning a living should, at this point, be considered equally as important as containing the spread of the virus.

After all, the cost of the shutdown goes far beyond mere economic concerns — such financial hardship has a real human cost as well. Depression, suicide and even incidents of domestic violence inevitably climb during times of economic turmoil as people struggle mentally and physically.

As such, the arbitrary nature of forcing businesses into bankruptcy and workers into breadlines (simply because their industry was considered “non-essential”) was never considered a narrow or targeted approach to combating the pandemic. From the beginning, efforts to contain the spread of the virus should have instead focused on encouraging individuals and businesses to modify their behavior in ways that reduce exposure and increase safety.

There is no substantive reason, for example, that retailers offering curbside pickup should have been forced to shut down while “essential” businesses continued to crowd shoppers into densely packed checkout lines and produce aisles. Large gatherings were, indeed, a public health hazard — however many churches that were forced to remain shuttered on Easter Sunday would have, nonetheless, been just as capable of “social distancing” as the average Walmart or Home Depot that continued to serve crowds over that same weekend.

Indeed, the “experts” who crafted the guidelines for what was ordered to be shutdown seemed far less concerned with whether or not actions were being taken to mitigate health risks than they were with deciding which industries, commercial sectors or social activities were deemed “essential.”

A safe and effective reopening of the economy should flip this status quo on its head. After all, if a business can offer its goods or services to the public in a safe way that mitigates the risk of spreading COVID-19, why should it be prohibited in doing so simply because the governor’s team of “experts” have decided it’s not an “essential” part of the economy?

Government should be less obsessed with which businesses are open, and more interested in whether or not those businesses are ensuring the safety of consumers. Unfortunately, government has proven in recent months it is incapable of such nuanced and rational approaches.

Individuals (and the market at large) on the other hand are very capable. In fact, they were already doing precisely that prior to the shutdown. Casinos had already cancelled shows, reduced guest interactions and a few had already closed before Governor Sisolak gave his shutdown order. Which makes sense. Consumers weren’t comfortable taking vacations at big resorts during a pandemic, and resort operators certainly didn’t want an outbreak on their property.

Even professional sports — both the NBA and the NHL — gave up hundreds of millions of dollars by cancelling or postponing their playoff seasons due to health concerns. Indeed, businesses and individuals at all levels were already modifying their behavior, self-isolating and “pausing the economy” before governors and expert task forces started drafting executive orders.

And that’s the point: Workers, business owners and consumers are quite capable of changing their behavior based on the risks they face. That’s why bars won’t be packed, clubs won’t be crammed, and the strip won’t suddenly be flooded with tourists the day after the economy is “reopened.” It’s also why the market can be trusted to take safety seriously: Because reducing risk is the only way for most businesses to win back the loyalty (and dollars) of consumers.

The reopening of our economy shouldn’t be micromanaged by the same politicians that trampled the livelihoods of so many Nevadans with an unnuanced and obtusely broad shutdown. It should be left to the small business owners who find ways to satisfy consumers while prioritizing safety. Nevadans should be free to decide for themselves what businesses they think are “essential.” Workers on the front lines should be the arbiter of what feels like a safe environment, not some government “expert” who is about to make that worker’s job temporarily illegal.

In other words, when and how we reopen our economy shouldn’t be up to politicians who have gotten so much wrong up to this point. It should be up to us as individual Nevadans.

This article was originally published by the Nevada Business Magazine.