Tough times

EDITORIALS

BY ART CULLEN

Life will not be the same in Storm Lake after the coronavirus pandemic passes. Already, small business owners and working families are having difficult conversations with bankers that are leading to agonizing decisions for everyone. Anyone who owns a hospitality business like a bar or restaurant has to wonder whether they will reopen, given that it wasn’t that easy turning a dollar even before the shutdown.

Congress has passed three massive relief bills involving trillions of dollars in subsidies for health care systems, local and state government, unemployment compensation and paid sick leave. They’re a good start but clearly more will be needed as the economy shakes out.

Currently, the offer for mom-and-pop businesses are grants of $5,000 to $25,000 through the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Other programs will be available for businesses who continue to employ workers. This is helpful. But if you own a taco restaurant that has to be closed for months, a $5,000 grant may be too little too late.

We need to offer as much support as possible.

Details of new federal and state initiatives will emerge. But we in Storm Lake, still reeling in uncertainty and hunkered down, must start to think about how we keep the community whole and restore it.

Some businesses will fail. Others will not return. What becomes of those entrepreneurs? Is there a way we can help them launch a different business? What about the waitresses and bartenders? What happens when unemployment expires? Is there a new career path that offers security? How can a 50-year-old woman who was serving breakfast reinvent herself with a new technical degree while surviving the process?

We hope, after the initial shock clears, that the city, county, school district, Iowa Central Community College and Buena Vista University can come together with the business community to solve just this sort of problem. Opportunities arise even from the worst catastrophes.

For example, how can the state help direct the jobless into a technical or baccalaureate program in high-demand local jobs like nursing, teaching and skilled trades? We should begin to plan for a massive investment in education that can create new opportunities across the state, while putting the unemployed on perhaps a more productive future. When the legislature convenes, it should be a first order of business. The main impediment to higher education, and thus innovation, is cost. The legislature after years of strangling k-12 and higher education must reverse course in a dramatic fashion. Our network of private colleges was under tremendous stress before the pandemic — this could be a way to provide them a future along with their students. Community colleges located throughout Iowa are in a strong position to respond to new workforce demands, if we can provide a way to sustain students in retraining.

A lot of people who are out of their jobs are young and ambitious. We need to be thinking right now how to retain them. People who had the courage to start and manage a business will need more than $5,000 and a loan to get them to real cash flow. Congress knows it can’t declare its business done with the massive relief packages created so far. Gov. Reynolds realizes that the legislature will have a lot of work to do, and we trust that she is in regular conversations with the state’s business and finance industry to keep our state’s economy from devolving.

Sales, income and property taxes will drop. Rural hospitals already on thin margins will be threatened. We will have to respond swiftly at the local, state and federal levels to keep the economy whole, and keep on responding. Business will not be the same. The pandemic will impact us for years. It will take at least 18 months to issue an all-clear on the immediate health threat.

THE GOVERNOR IS managing as best she can. She is under much pressure to order a shelter-at-home requirement for everyone not working in an essential service or industry. (A mechanic is essential when the ambulance needs the oil changed. Somebody essential has to take care of the nurse’s child.) Most Iowans are trying to comply with social distance guidelines, and are staying home as they can. Reynolds says she will act in consultation with health experts about how to proceed. Schools and public gatherings are banned. Effectively, the state already is sheltering. The mayors of Des Moines and Iowa City have issued stay-at-home orders, which is reasonable and within their authority. Storm Lake Mayor Mike Porsch, a pharmacist, is listening to health authorities and does not think that a lockdown is in order yet. The vulnerable, especially those over age 60, are on notice to stay home for all but vital needs like groceries. We are confident that the administration is listening to the scientists and acting accordingly.

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