Smack dab in the middle (hopefully, at least) of the current pandemic there’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know if many small businesses will reopen; of those that do reopen, we don’t know how many can maintain themselves. We don’t know what will happen when the PPP money is gone. We don’t know where the horrendous unemployment numbers we’re looking at now will level off and where they’ll end up. We don’t know if we’re in for a “W-shaped” coronavirus curve with a recurrence of infections, or if we’re on a stable downward slope towards pre-pandemic infection rates. We don’t know when tourists will be free to travel and if they’ll have the money and will feel safe enough to do so. We don’t know what the exploding U.S. deficit will do to tax burdens, cuts in services, and the future of the national economy. We don’t know when we’ll have a vaccine.
In the face of all these uncertainties and the rapidly changing status of public and economic health, approximations we reach today are bound to morph into different conclusions tomorrow on which we can build the future of the economy. But the things we do know now, and on which can begin to base our understandings and the plans we make for the future, are striking in their definitiveness.
Tourism: We’ve been saying this for years, and it is now incontrovertible that dependence on tourism as the driver of our economy is a losing proposition. The world sneezes, quite literally, and Hawaii gets sick. The resulting economic illness is clearer on the Neighbor Islands, which are so much more tourist-dependent than Oahu, but it is something shared throughout the state. We simply have to develop some other foundation for economic activity than tourism if we are to have any hope of a more secure economic future. Economic security seems precarious wherever you look in the world today, but it is much more so when you’re standing on one economic leg.
Business conditions: To turn us around from a tourism-centric economy, it is clear that our legislators have to pay more than lip service to this goal going forward in creating conditions where sustainable industries can develop. This translates to activity in those areas that are so well suited to common-use, public sector investment: infrastructure — hardscape and digital, workforce development, favorable taxation, and economic incentives. These create an environment for innovation, and in our case, survival.
Health care and public health: On the national level, this pandemic has laid bare the frailty of a system that attaches health care to employment. When negative circumstances derail employment, the house of cards that is health care entitlement as it is currently constructed falls apart, compounding the economic damage in a public health-related crisis like this one. Our survival as a viable country depends on developing a system of health care coverage that exists independent of employment and that is consistent over time and a wide array of life circumstances. To do otherwise imposes too big a burden on businesses, employees, and those who fall through the cracks, and endangers us not only at home but on the world stage.
Part of the health care equation is public health, and recent developments have underscored just how exposed we are to situations that experts saw coming, but for which government neglected to develop safeguards or preventative measures. These issues need more attention and financing.
Workforce deployment: The enforced distancing and furloughs of the current epidemic call into question long-held assumptions about the ways of doing business. Beneficiaries of this will be employees who not only demonstrate value to their businesses but who have flexibility about where they do their work. The ones left out of this silver lining are employees who just weren’t missed all that much and who subsequently are expendable in the eyes of business owners, and businesses that can’t pivot to new models of service delivery. The other major losers in this circumstance are landlords who now have to get creative and flexible about the excess space they may have on their hands.
The digital world: Access to dependable internet service has proven itself a lifeline in this time of business disruption. But it is not an equally shared lifeline, and it is not fast enough to lead us through the coming developments of the 21st Century. To remedy that we need expansion of service delivery and high-speed internet availability and reliability. And businesses that may have been saying they’ll get to it someday, need to have an effective digital presence now.
Other realizations will surely come as we move through this time of business and personal trauma, but so far, some things seem certain and achievable and we neglect them at our peril.
Dennis Boyd is a regular contributor to West Hawaii Today. He is active in many aspects of the West Hawaii business community and is a resident of North Kohala.