We may end up sometime soon looking back fondly at the good old days — of May.
Remember the first three weeks of the month, before Memorial Day and the murder of George Floyd? Things were actually looking up. Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths were falling rapidly here in New York and had yet to really spike elsewhere. The absolute misery and fear of March and April had subsided a bit as the weather was warming and we were slowly reopening our economy. The stock market was rebounding. You could be forgiven for thinking that the terrible trends of skyrocketing unemployment and collapsing gross domestic product could be slowing and that the worst might actually be avoided.
Well, that was then. Today things are as dire as you might have expected in the dark days of early spring. While New York has kept the virus at bay, cases jumped in states where they hadn’t before, and the national daily death toll rose again. Stocks have remained strong overall, but that just shows the divide between Wall Street and Main Street. Unemployment went from 18.1 percent citywide in May to 20.4 percent in June. In Queens it went from 19.8 to 21.8 percent. There’s little reason to believe July will be better.
Nationally, the gross domestic product fell at an annualized rate of 32.9 percent in the second quarter, a figure which, as Forbes put it, “has no historic precedence in the U.S.” That’s right, the economy did not drop so far so fast even during the Great Depression. Nor did unemployment jump as high as it has so quickly; it took years to get this bad. The age of the coronavirus is full of uncharted waters.
This week we reported on the demise of three more eateries: the Avenue Diner in Woodhaven, Sushi Village in Bayside and Buddy’s Kosher Delicatessen in Oakland Gardens. We’re sure there are more we haven’t learned of yet. Protesting businesspeople in Flushing begged for government support with cries of “Save Our storefronts!” At another demonstration, against giving Main Street over to buses, one sign admonished, “Flushing needs revenue, not restrictions.”
The only thing that can possibly stave off even worse circumstances is the spending power of the federal government. The city doesn’t have anything like the funds necessary to sustain the level of commerce we still have. Neither does the state, which has to balance its budget under the law. Each does have a role to play, but only Washington can inject the cash that’s needed to keep the country afloat.
Democrats and Republicans must reach agreement on a new stimulus bill. Federal unemployment benefits must be restored or millions more people will be instantly impoverished. The Paycheck Protection Program must be extended to keep more people from losing their jobs and save businesses. Protections against foreclosures on those with federally backed loans must remain. And if the two parties cannot come to an accord soon, President Trump should, at the very least, extend the unemployment program by executive order.
The city and state should work together to reduce commercial property taxes, especially for landlords whose tenants have not been able to pay rent for months. Albany cannot protect renters, residential or commercial, without also making property owners whole. For their part, landlords should accept lower rents from commercial tenants, which beats having vacant properties and no rental income at all. But doing that is only possible with city and state assistance.
However things look from one’s individual perspective — maybe you still have your job, your supermarket is open and you were never big on eating out anyway — we are on the brink of catastrophe. Our response has to be all hands on deck to avoid a future that, so far, is difficult to even fathom.