Ryan Helfenbein: Reopening the Economy Is Not Partisan, It’s Necessary

Virginia protest (McNamee / Getty)
McNamee / Getty

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently stated that “a crisis tends to strip away façades and reveal who we are and what we believe.

At best, we become stronger as communities and a nation; at worst, we slip into fear and oppression.”

The new information concerning coronavirus is revealing more and more about what we already know to be characteristic of those who love freedom and those who love power.  

As the number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States begins to flatten and decline, several states are preparing to reopen their economies. It is no longer a partisan issue, as states with Democratic governors — including Montana, Colorado, and Minnesota — also begin to ease restrictions related to COVID-19. 

In Colorado, retail businesses with curbside delivery can reopen, and elective medical procedures can resume. And in Minnesota, businesses are allowed to reopen as long as they adhere to proper social distancing guidelines.

In Virginia, however, a ban still exists on small businesses through May 8, and one of the nation’s longest mandatory stay-at-home orders is still in effect through June 10. Though Virginia doesn’t even rank in the top 15 of all states with COVID-19 cases, citizens have filed a half-million jobless claims in the past six weeks.

This delay has already hurt millions of Americans with a devastating economic impact nationwide: 26 million jobless filings and counting. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam suggested that he would lift restrictions and begin phase one of reopening the economy if there were a steep decline of COVID-19 positive tests and hospitalizations over 14 consecutive days. And phase one will still have restrictions on which non-essential businesses must remain closed.

Dr. Norman Oliver, the Virginia State Health Commissioner, made alarming headlines on Friday by stating that phase one of the reopening could last as long as two years.  After an overwhelming public outcry in response, both Dr. Oliver and the governor’s office were quick to clarify that a vaccine could take two years to develop but that “phase one” of reopening the economy would not take years. 

Regardless, it has now become clear to everyone that Virginia’s 725,000 small businesses — which employ half the state’s workforce — cannot last in these economic conditions.

It is also true that Virginia’s COVID-19 cases are disproportionately concentrated in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William, and Henrico counties, with a total of 6,636 cases as of this writing. These account for nearly half of the 13,535 cases in the entire state. These are also the counties with Virginia’s most significant share of federal and state employees, with an estimated 322,000 federal employees and retirees living in northern Virginia. 

Going outside Virginia’s blue band, local economies rely more on the strength of small businesses, retail, trucking, and agriculture. These areas have been disproportionately affected by Governor Northam’s stay-at-home order. They are at a significantly lower health risk from the virus. In Lynchburg alone, there are fewer than 100 cases, with no deaths.  

A staggered reopening plan is not just sensible; it’s necessary. Minnesota, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky are already introducing plans that would allow businesses to remain open as long as health guidelines and safety measures remain in place. Individuals who are not in high-risk categories will be allowed to leave their homes and start going back to work. Older individuals or those at higher risk for complications for COVID-19 do not need to leave home. Also, smaller areas of the state that have lower cases of COVID-19 can start reopening and going back to work immediately, while other, more populated areas could see a more gradual return to work. 

In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves’s “safer at home” policy requires the elderly and those who are at risk to remain sheltered, while others who are not at risk are free to leave their homes and go to work. Additionally, Tennessee is reopening all of its restaurants, and allowing retail stores to operate at fifty percent capacity this week. 

Public health and the economic health of Americans are not mutually exclusive. The longer governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo, California’s Gavin Newsom, and Virginia’s Northam keep businesses from reopening, the more difficult it will be for hard-working American families to recover.

When public policy is no longer about health and safety, it reveals the desperate opportunism of those seeking power and control.

Ryan Helfenbein is the Vice President of Communications and Public Engagement at Liberty University and Executive Director of the Falkirk Center for Faith & Liberty.

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