Reece Keener: Essential non-essentials
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Reece Keener: Essential non-essentials

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National polling indicates that the stay-at-home orders issued in most states enjoyed support from a justifiably frightened public, including Nevada. However, public support is beginning to crack and erode amid alarming increases in unemployment and economic instability, as many of these stay home orders have extended well past the original timelines.

It is now May, and our “non-essential” businesses are still under the oppressive weight of shutdown orders. Only now are we beginning to get a glimpse of when we might see the lifting of the lockdown, as some of the Las Vegas megaresorts are beginning to take reservations for later this month. A rural task force is finally being convened by the Governor in a concession that his “one size fits all” Nevada model doesn’t work, yet in another sentence saying that the rurals will not open before Clark County.

Support of the shutdown enjoys wider support by those that have been economically unaffected. Many of our State employees have enjoyed a taxpayer subsidized “staycation,” under administrative leave with full benefits and uninterrupted payroll deposits. For those private sector employees that have been able to work from home, it has also been a favorable situation. For the retirees (among the most medically “at risk” population), there has been little economic hardship that I am aware of.

It is fair to generally say that the “affluent” have been relatively unaffected. However, the situation is dramatically different for many of our most economically vulnerable service-sector workers in Elko that find themselves newly unemployed: casino workers, restaurant employees, motel workers, retail workers, etc. Yes, there are incredibly generous unemployment benefits right now through the CARES act which provides workers with a $600 per week bonus, IF you can access them. These unemployed workers are suffering horrendous economic hardship, as many are unable to access benefits and have now gone weeks without income.

Nevada’s Department of Training, Employment and Rehabilitation (DETR) is charged with processing unemployment claims. To date, thousands of Nevadans have been unable to file their claims due to backlogs, and an overwhelmed system. There are numerous accounts of dozens of hours spent on hold, and then finally reaching an operator that was unequipped, or unable to assist. This is a major “black eye” for a critical government function to fail so miserably during a crisis. It would be the equivalent of the City failing to deliver water to residents.

Another profoundly affected class of “non‐essentials” include those operating under the Nevada Board of Cosmetology licenses. This includes barbers, hair stylists, nail technicians and a host of other categories within the beauty services.

These licensees are predominately self‐employed, and they are ineligible for unemployment benefits or SBA loans. Despite the shutdown of State agencies, the Board mustered the resources to notify licensees that they will be subject to license revocation if they dare to reopen. Massage therapists, while under a different State licensing agency, have also have been warned, under the long reach of their regulatory authority.

These are workers that we all know and depend on. They’ve invested years of dedication and hard work into their businesses. In many cases, they have invested large sums into their enterprises so that they can grow and offer new services to better serve their clients. They have “skin in the game,” and that’s why their frustration is boiling over, because the State has banned them from operation and threatened punitive actions.

For those that have never owned or operated a business, it would be as though the keys to your car were confiscated by the government. Meanwhile, you’re still having to make the payments on the car, along with license and insurance, yet you’re prohibited from using it, and if you dare, your driver’s license will be revoked.

As the statewide shutdown of “non-essential” businesses grinds onward, there’s a growing frustration among business owners that fit into this unfortunate category. They’ve now been sidelined for a month and a half, many with zero income while their expenses continue to accrue. For some, if they don’t reopen now, they will never be able to reopen. So for them, it is less about disobedience and more about survival.

There will be the usual criticisms from know-it-alls that think it is perfectly logical to remain in shutdown indefinitely. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but it is important to understand the perspective of the “non-essentials” that have suffered disproportional hardships during this shutdown. A mere 60 days ago, most of these businesses were vibrant and productive, and now some are barely surviving. Many of these businesses represent the bulk of the owner’s net worth, and a default could trigger foreclosure on their home, as the equity was used to secure the business loan.

Businesses are not designed to stay closed. No brick and mortar business can operate without labor, and retention of staff is a crucial component of any businesses’ success. The longer a business stays closed, the longer the odds that employees won’t return. Retention of customers is another concern, as they will seek other alternatives. Some Elko non-essential businesses are losing their customers and orders to other alternatives, like out-of-state stores that are open.

If it really is so dangerous to re-open retail establishments, why haven’t we seen the rampant spread of infection in Elko? It is mystifying how Home Depot, Walmart, and grocery stores have been teeming with activity, yet we’re not experiencing an increase in casually transmitted Covid-19 cases. Provided it is done in a thoughtful and safe manner, non-essential retail stores and restaurants need to be given the green light to reopen. If consumers don’t feel safe, don’t patronize the business and please don’t judge because you don’t know their circumstances.

In my previous column, I mentioned prominently that our health-compromised citizens will need to self-isolate indefinitely. This is a now fact throughout America, whether you live in New York or Nevada. Oppressive shutdowns can only slow the spread of the coronavirus, not eliminate it. Like a hurricane, it is a force of nature and the only remedy is for it to naturally dissipate.

As it stands now, the Governor of the State of Nevada is picking the winners and losers, all while sticking to a “one size fits all” approach to reopening rural Nevada. The extension of the “stay‐at‐home” order provides little relief for citizens, and only exacerbates the economic damage to Nevada. Please join me in expressing your concerns to the Governor’s office. The Honorable Governor Sisolak can be reached at 702-486-2500.

Reece Keener

Elko Mayor

P.S. as the chief executive officer of a municipality, I am ultimately responsible for the financial stability of our organization. Governments at the local level are forced to live within their means. Like the private sector, if we continue to see revenue erosion we will be forced to cut services and positions to adjust.

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