State legislative Republicans have introduced their Safe Economic Restart Plan, which outlines their ideas for getting more people back to work after more than a month of COVID-19-related shutdowns.
“It is a bit of a group project — there are a number of legislators involved,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. “It’s very specific and outlines a more aggressive return to normal than anything the governor has articulated.”
Gov. Jay Inslee addressed the public Tuesday to discuss his plan for restarting the economy, suggesting a phased-in approach.
Walsh said he “contributed some to it,” and the legislative Republicans’ plan “uses hard metrics” that must be met before the business closure order, which closed 230,000 businesses in the state March 23, can be lifted or amended.
“Knowing the standards will allow the people of Washington to act accordingly,” reads a statement on the House Republicans website.
“About a half dozen industries, I think, could come back to work immediately,” said Walsh.
Examples of such operations included in the legislative Republicans’ plan include auto dealers, solo landscape services, car washes, remodeling companies and contractors, residential construction, hairdressers and barbers, flower shops, RV parks, dentists, installers of home and commercial security systems, and accountants and tax preparers.
Local businesses weigh in
Suzi Zabiaka has been taking care of Harborites’ hair for decades and runs her own salon, Head Lines, in Aberdeen. She’s been weathering the closure OK and, while she would like to serve her clients, she wants to make sure she can do so safely.
“My 84-year-old mother lives here with us, so I’m very careful about getting out and being around too many people,” she said. “And I have a lot of people of age that I do their hair.”
She said, when she’s allowed to reopen, she hopes to have a list of guidelines that she and other salons will follow to make sure they can all do their jobs without risking the increased spread of COVID-19.
“Everybody’s talking about, you can wear a mask and wear gloves, but you’re not going to use gloves to cut peoples’ hair,” she said. “You wear gloves for color and to shampoo the color off,” but cutting hair with gloved hands isn’t practical.
As for the masks, “If I lean over the sink — I’m 5-foot-1 — I’m coming into very close contact with you,” said Zabiaka.
She said the fact she sees just one client at a time allows for some social distancing, and she’s always prided herself on keeping a clean shop, “but is everybody going to be really careful about disinfecting everything?”
Then there’s the logistics of reopening her business after what’s going on six weeks closed at this point. Her long list of regular clients typically come in every 4-6 weeks.
“Sometimes I’m booked for a whole year,” she said. “I don’t know how to start that cycle up again.”
Rich Hartman, owner of Five Star Dealerships in Aberdeen and a recently purchased Ford Lincoln dealership in Bellingham, said the Legislative Republicans’ plan is similar to one devised by Congress.
Under Gov. Inslee’s order, “sales departments have a small slice of qualifying customers that are allowed to buy a car,” said Hartman. “It’s massive. Sales departments are down 90 percent, so if you used to sell 10 a day it’s now one. It’s not just here, that’s all across the state of Washington.”
Hartman said between his local and Bellingham dealership he had about 150 employees. In response to the shut down, 90 have been furloughed.
“It’s devastating,” said Hartman.
He said he tried to “right-size the store as quickly as possible, making sure that the workers who were furloughed knew I was not going to expect them to take a financial hit, that if what they got from the government was not what they were used to I’d make up the difference to them at some point when we figure all this out.”
The key, said Hartman, was making sure his employees didn’t have to stress about money on top of the stresses of dealing with a pandemic. Early on, he tried to navigate the constantly changing unemployment rules.
“I tried to analyze everything up front and it got very complicated, so I just said, Hey guys, if we have to furlough you don’t stress out, ” he said. “If you’re short of cash, even though I think it’s going to be fine, I’m going to take care of it.”
Hartman is on the board of directors of the Washington State Auto Dealers Association, an influential trade association. He said the association is supplying Gov. Inslee with all the information possible about what a startup for auto sales would look like.
“We have done our best to get all the information possible to him for analysis and he has not really been receptive of anything,” said Hartman. He said the association has outlined a plan to maintain social distancing and other safety concerns after re-start.
“Say the biggest dealership in the state right now is probably blessed if it’s going to sell about 20 vehicles a day. And when we’re talking about a big dealer it’s a huge facility, obviously,” said Hartman. “So 20 guests a day, I think that’s pretty easy to take care of. No offense, but the pot shops are open, and they’re nowhere near the 50,000-100,000 square feet like a big dealer, so it is not a problem.”
The Legislative Republicans’ plan
“Employers across our state are looking to government for a strategy that starts to take the brake off the economy,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “Republicans have come through with a safe and reasonable approach for beginning the recovery.”
“Our state needs a comprehensive plan to restart its economy in ways that continue to emphasize the health of Washingtonians. No one has produced a plan until now,” said Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.
Schoesler added, “We believe many sectors of our economy can operate safely, and employers have every incentive to take the precautions needed to guard the health of their workers and their customers. We trust that if they have an opportunity to open their doors, they’ll make it work.”
The Republican legislators’ Safe Economic Restart Plan recommends three tiers of actions, starting with steps that may be authorized immediately by Gov. Inslee. They include:
• Convene a Restart Task Force comprising legislative leaders, relevant executive-branch directors and representatives of the business and organized-labor communities. This group will chart a course toward allowing all Washington businesses to reopen, on a phased or limited basis as necessary, with COVID-19 protections for workers and customers in place.
• Deliver on the massive testing capabilities promised by state health officials ahead of the business-closure order. Direct the appropriate state agencies to acquire antibody tests and work with employers to screen workers. Workers found to have the antibodies resulting from the COVID-19 infection will be immediately eligible for employment.
• Interface with the governor’s task force and be prepared to support recommendations that are achievable, measurable and complementary.
• A moratorium on all state-agency rulemaking not related to the current crisis. Rules are important, but at a time when many businesses are simply trying to survive, the making of new rules seems less than essential.
• Exempt small businesses from paying sales and business-and-occupation (B&O) taxes for one year.
• Offer state-government assistance to the many small businesses in Washington that do not qualify for federal emergency-assistance programs.
“I don’t agree with every line,” said Walsh. “The language about suggesting a negative test in order to work could have been worded more clearly. And I’m not keen on more task forces and work groups.”
Walsh continued, “But all in all, I agree with the B&O Tax holiday, the idea that the restart should be nimble, based on transparent metrics, not one size fits all, and getting some industries back to work immediately. The plan is “transparent, metrics-based and nimble. ”
Local tax base
The affect of the shutdown on local tax bases concerns Walsh.
“Local tax bases haven’t even felt the worst pain yet,” said Walsh. “We have seen some of that with the Aberdeen School District looking at layoffs, but that’s just the beginning really. The hit to local tax revenue will affect counties and cities and everybody.”
He continued, “And that’s what I’m worried about. Local tax bases are about six months behind the general economy, and so we haven’t even felt the worst of that yet.”