BY CARLA J. SONNTAG / President and Founder, New Mexico Business Coalition
It has been a long, devastating eight months for New Mexico. The COVID-19 virus is a force with which we must contend, and so far we're not doing very well.
There is no doubt the virus is serious, and the loss of a single life is heartbreaking. We are, however, months past the point of finding a common-sense way to address the dangers while recognizing other critical needs of New Mexicans.
Some believe a vaccine is the answer; however, that is not the case. A vaccine will help but will not be the final answer. To that end, it is society that must adapt to living as safely as possible with this virus.
Three epidemiologists, Dr. Sunetra Gupta, Dr. Martin Kulldorff and Jay Bhattacharya, issued a joint statement in the Great Barrington Declaration that the widespread lockdown policy has been a devastating public health mistake, stating, "Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed."
Hubert Allen, a Johns Hopkins educated biostatistician in Albuquerque, added, "I believe there is a sweeter spot than the polar extremes of 'herd immunity' or 'lock-it-down' philosophies. The alternative is maximum safety, protecting the most vulnerable, and keeping businesses operating with COVID-19 safe procedures."
Let's consider other critical aspects of life in New Mexico.
Stay-at-home orders have increased the sense of isolation. New Mexico, already first in the nation for suicide, is now, tragically, seeing our youth impacted.
Our economy is in shambles. We've permanently lost hundreds of businesses, and there are more closing daily due to recent orders. Others are wondering if the end is inevitable.
Big-box national chains continue to win. While limited in the capacity allowed onto their sacred floors, other businesses are once again shuttered or told they can operate curbside or delivery only. Why is it OK for big-box stores to sell jewelry but not our Native Americans and other jewelry entrepreneurs? Why are
chain stores allowed to sell home goods, but our local entrepreneurs aren't?
New Mexico has consistently had the most severe restrictions in the U.S., yet our COVID-related death rate per 100,000 is higher than 29 other states. Seven of those states never issued a stay-at-home order, and South Dakota never shut a single business.
Clearly the lockdown has not worked to stop the virus, but it has had stellar results in destroying New Mexico's businesses and workers' opportunities. There are two things that should be done immediately to help New Mexicans:
1). Allow all businesses to operate. Business owners/managers care deeply about safety and (smaller enterprises) are actually safer than huge stores that daily serve thousands.
2). Use some of the federal CARES Act to shore up the Unemployment Insurance (UI) tax fund. In the June special session the Legislature passed a bipartisan measure NMBC drafted to shield employers from higher UI taxes attributed to unprecedented layoffs over which they had no control. Unfortunately, some
government officials are already looking at increasing this tax to unimaginable levels. We saw the devastation of this tax on businesses coming out of the Great Recession. The impact of any higher taxes following this pandemic would be disastrous.
New Mexico received well over 1 billion CARES Act dollars. Putting a large portion into the UI fund would provide workers' assurance of unemployment funds and protect businesses from closure or staff reductions due to increased UI tax costs.
Many states have shored up their UI with CARES dollars. When Georgia's governor committed CARES money to that state's UI fund, he said it "will save Georgia employers millions of dollars in state and federal unemployment taxes, prevent significant layoffs and save the state millions of dollars in interest payments."
New Mexico seems unable to learn from the wisdom of other states in how to operate under this pandemic, but we hope that proper use of the CARES Act money could be the first step in truly helping New Mexicans.