Pandemic Fatigue: A Threat to Health and Economic Progress
On Sept. 18, President Biden announced that the COVID-19 pandemic was over. For some, it had been over since their first vaccine shot, their latest booster shot, or when they took their masks off and returned to their offices. But for many, the pandemic and its resultant economic hardships and health challenges are very much still ongoing. At the time of this writing, thousands of small businesses throughout the country were still suffering financially and 400 Americans were still dying every day. Can Congress and the Biden administration provide relief in this environment and work to prevent or alleviate the next crisis? Or, are we suffering from a new malady – pandemic fatigue – that will prevent us from successfully closing this chapter in our history?
The World Health Organization defines pandemic fatigue as “demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviors, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions.”In Washington, pandemic fatigue is manifesting as a demotivation to provide federal money to assist businesses impacted by the virus and the mandated shutdowns and to continue to purchase and provide vaccines and testing materials.This is also impacting future health crises with a bipartisan reluctance to provide federal money.
Small businesses were disproportionately affected by the mandatory shutdowns of 2020 and the de facto shutdowns of 2021 when a surge in COVID forced many people to return to a more isolated existence. While Congress did provide federal funding relief to many small businesses, but not all, the pandemic outlasted that relatively meager assistance.
Acting through several coalitions to build awareness and support, small businesses gained the recognition of the chairs of the House and Senate Small Business Committees. Chairwoman Velazquez of New York supported HR 3807. This measure would establish the Hard Hit Industries Award Program for small businesses that suffered a pandemic-related revenue loss of 40% or more. The federal funding could be used for expenses including mortgage, rent, utility payments and payroll. The Small Business Administration would have to prioritize entities that have experienced significant pandemic-related revenue loss, with first priority going to those that experienced a loss of at least 80%, and second priority going to those that experienced a loss of at least 60%.
This year U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship Chair Ben Cardin introduced S.4008, the Small Business COVID Relief Act of 2022. The bill would provide grants to hard-hit small businesses that could demonstrate substantial losses in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senator Cardin acknowledged that small businesses are, “struggling under unsustainable debt, ongoing supply chain delays, and workforce challenges that inhibit their ability to operate and grow their businesses.” While the Small Business Administration would have authority to define eligibility, the bill clarifies that sole proprietorships, independent contractors, and self-employed individuals are eligible. This would be good news for the many lawyers who are sole proprietors were also impacted by the pandemic and represented other small businesses.
But despite the support of these two powerful chairs, the measures could not gain traction. While the House passed its bill, the Senate version languished because it could not garner enough Republican support to overcome a filibuster. It is surprising that bills that are designed to help struggling small businesses, a key demographic of the electorate, did not move. This would normally be the type of bill that elected officials would love to campaign on in their home districts on the eve of an election. In the House, all 435 members are up for re-election as are one-third of the Senate. The Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities in both chambers.A month out from Election Day, political pundits believe the outcome is too close to call.But regardless of which party controls Congress next year,it is doubtful if any relevant measure would move in the 118th Congress, which begins January 2023.It appears that small relief measures have fallen victim to pandemic fatigue.
In addition to looking in the rearview mirror, Congress needs to be looking ahead to keep the momentum going on fighting COVID-19 and to the public health crisis on the horizon. More money is needed. A program that provided free rapid tests at home through the U.S. Postal Service was suspended on Sept. 2. The government will run out of federal money to purchase and distribute COVID-19 vaccines by January 2023. The Biden administration is seeking $22.4 billion in supplemental funding to help combat COVID-19 through research and development of the next-generation vaccines and medicines. According to Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda, “funding is vital to our ability to protect and build on the progress we’ve made.” But, there is little appetite for relief on the hill, from either side of the aisle, to provide this money. Nor is there interest in appropriating the $4.5 billion that the administration has requested in the fight against monkeypox.
Pandemic Fatigue in New York
Pandemic fatigue is striking in New York State and New York City as well. In September, Governor Kathy Hochul ended the statewide mass transit mask mandate. This pronouncement was met with mixed reviews from the population. In the same month, New York City Mayor Adams announced that the strict and controversial COVID-19 vaccine requirements for private businesses will end on Nov. 1. Interestingly, the same rule for the municipal employees that report to, and work with, the mayor, will remain in place. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider the issue at a conference on Oct. 7. In this case, a New York Police Department detective is challenging the vaccine mandate for municipal workers. Arguing that he did not qualify for religious or medical exemptions, he should be allowed to make his own choice on vaccinations since he said he had immunity from his time as a first responder. His case has worked its way through state and federal court. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals denied his request for a stay of the vaccine mandate, so he appealed to the Supreme Court to grant him an injunction or strike down the city’s policy altogether. There have been other similar cases in the courts, but they have generally upheld the city’s broad power to enact vaccine requirements.
So as we close out 2022, where does that leave us?
Small businesses and their owners and employees are still suffering. They need relief. COVID-19 is still around and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Congress has a role to play in facilitating mitigation and health and safety efforts. But, will they find the political will and way? Or is pandemic fatigue the virus that will dominate 2023?