Mr. President, don’t ask that question.
News that our nation’s gross domestic product contracted at a 32.9% annual rate in the second quarter is both a record-breaking and heartless number. An economic meltdown of this magnitude is etched into the faces of business owners experiencing hardship, lost income, anxiety, and an uncertain future.
Where I live in South Florida, “mom and pop” stores are increasingly surrendering to market forces and health restrictions by closing their doors. What is it like to own a small business in this area while the pandemic is raging? What follows is a “focus group” of neighborhood shops that I frequently patronize in Broward County – the second most populous in “the mother of all swing states.”
While doing a round of errands, I spoke with always hardworking, formerly upbeat, but now distressed owners and felt their pain. The businesses will remain anonymous since all the owners (except at the nail salon) were unaware that I was conducting “research.”
Intentionally, I did not mention politics during our brief chats. Nor did I ask the most iconic presidential election question that usually forecasts the winner: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” First raised by Ronald Reagan in 1980 during his only debate with President Jimmy Carter, the question has become a quadrennial standard. Then, during the 1992 presidential election, a complementary declarative statement was famously hatched by Bill Clinton’s lead strategist, James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Both clichés were on my mind when I visited a dry-cleaner that has been family-owned and operated for over 40 years.
The owner said business was the “worst ever” — so bad that for the first time he is forced to cancel his August vacation. Meanwhile, his suppliers are whispering that several area dry-cleaners will soon be gone.
He told me that summer traditionally is downtime for dry-cleaning. However, he generates enough revenue during the winter high season to survive doldrums — but not this year. Due to the initial virus panic, the “snowbirds”(northerners, Canadians, and Europeans who reside in Florida for three to five months) flew away early. Worse, dry cleaning necessitated by parties, events, weddings, and normal day-to-day professional office wear has dissipated – the trickle-down effect of a GDP shrunk by a third.
With dry-cleaning in hand (ironically including a suit my husband wore to our first COVID-era wedding), I left feeling sad.
The Nail Salon
After grocery shopping, I dropped by to speak with the owner of my favorite nail salon. This was the site of the pandemic-forced closure I chronicled in a RealClearPolitics piece headlined “Will Trump Become the New Hoover or Roosevelt?”
To briefly recap, on March 22, I was mid-manicure when two police officers entered and demanded that the salon immediately cease operations, announcing, “The governor is shutting down all non-essential businesses.” The married Vietnamese immigrant owners who, for the last 10 years have embodied the American dream of launching and successfully operating their own business — were startled and disturbed. But they had seen worse — at age 10, the wife survived the “boat people” crisis when her family escaped the brutal communist regime.
Since the salon reopened with restrictions in early June, I had been back a few times. But the normally bustling business operating under a mandated reduction of customers, was eerily quiet.
It is important to note that the salon is located in a run-of-the-mill strip-shopping center but across the street from the second-largest ocean on the planet.
The co-owner husband, complaining his business was “twice as slow” during this low season, called it “a tourist area with no tourists.” He elaborated that during a pre-COVID summer, the salon would welcome cruise ship passengers on their way to board some of the world’s largest and most luxurious ships at Port Everglades. But not this year.
And normally in mid-summer, there is an influx of South American customers who stay for a month or two to escape their winter. Furthermore, between May and August, the salon caters to Europeans and Americans visiting the beaches while taking advantage of reduced hotel prices. But now all travel was curtailed.
Making matters worse, there is a problem with local residents. Many are elderly, and “not venturing out due to pandemic fears.” Mirroring the dry cleaner, he also mentioned the “snowbirds” left early — curtailing his highest profit months that subsidized the summer.
Finally, I asked, “Are you paying your rent?” Looking forlorn, he said, “No, and the landlord is threatening to kick us out.” (After years of never missing a payment.) “I don’t know what to do,” he continued, “but I will figure something out.”
The Restaurant Caterer
My last errand (and duel focus group) involved a two-minute drive to replace my watch battery. And next to the jeweler is our favorite small gourmet café that houses the owner’s successful catering business. Last weekend when we called for takeout, there was no answer, so we were concerned the restaurant had closed.
Fortunately, the café’s door was open, so I popped inside. The owner told me that now they were only open during the day. Based on a conversation I had with him weeks before, while picking up dinner, I knew his catering business had been devastated. Solid bookings from March until the end of July were canceled — corporate events, yacht parties, weddings, graduations, birthdays, anniversaries — all vaporized by the virus. He said that now a permit was required to hold an event with more than ten people. Looking tired and dejected, he did not expect catering to rebound anytime soon in a state where the pandemic was increasing.
Upon leaving, I asked if he was going to “hang in there,” and he sadly responded, “I don’t know.”
The Jeweler: No Catering Means More Carats
Then I proceeded to the jewelry store where I saw the concept of “ying-yang” economics in action. (Not technically an economic theory.)
The ladies buzzed me in, and I presented my designer watch purchased in 1985. Immediately, one of them showed me the most dazzling, ornate, two-carat diamond engagement ring, “hot off the press.” Impressed, I asked about business, and the ring lady cheerily said, “believe it or not, we have been busy.” First, she explained that people were buying more lavish wedding rings, “many with at least two carats” because they were no longer spending money on large wedding receptions. Second, since customers are not traveling, they have more time to redesign their old jewelry – a specialty of hers.
For the first time that day, I left a store without feeling depressed.
Walking by the cafe back to my car, I thought about pandemic’s economic ying-yang, no catering means more carats. However, less cha-ching everywhere means no dresses or suits for the dry-cleaner; no vacation spending; no manicures needed; and no rent for the shopping center landlord who has to pay his lender. (A tsunami-sized problem about to strike the nation.)
Most of my neighborhood economy is bleeding to death by 1,000 cuts — a microcosm of the plummeted GDP. So what is the answer to the question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Don’t ask Mr. President, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Myra Adams is a media producer and conservative political and religious writer with numerous national credits. She is also Executive Director of www.SignFromGod.org, a ministry dedicated to educating people about the Shroud of Turin. Contact: [email protected] or on Twitter @MyraKAdams.