BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. held its first weekly internet-based conference call on March 20 for businesses and other organizations trying to wrestle with the economic outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At this early stage, the full outcome of the pandemic on the Windham County economy remains unknown, and the context changes almost daily. On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott “directed the closure of in-person operations for all non-essential businesses,” according to a press release from the governor's office.
Yet, as the state releases more response guidelines, as schools have officially closed, as more workers are working remotely, as restaurants have been ordered to provide take-out only, and as more people stay home, the economy will inevitably change sharply.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told the group of approximately 45 participants that “we're all astonished. Who of us would have thought a month ago that we'd be in the midst of what is an immense health care crisis and the one where the best way to keep ourselves healthy is by shutting down the economy.”
Welch said that of the economists he's spoken with, most have said that the contraction in the U.S. economy this current quarter could be “historic.”
“We don't know what the extent of this will be, but we do know that it will be very deep,” said Welch. “We've got to be sober and realistic and have a policy response that meets the magnitude of the crisis.”
On the federal level, Congress is working on three primary actions, Welch said.
He noted that the government intends to fund emergency response, such as providing protective gear for personnel. It will provide support for those who have lost their jobs, and it will expand Medicaid, as well as provide support around paid family medical leave.
Finally, committees are working on a stimulus package that, in Welch's perspective, focuses on families and provides extensive benefits, works with small employers, and protects small community hospitals.
“Our states are going to be under tremendous budget pressure,” and that financial stress could be transferred to taxpayers, he said. In Welch's opinion, the federal government needs to increase funding to the states in a way that is similar to how it handled the 2008 economic downturn.
“The big goal here, with a big effort, is to stabilize incomes for families and the prospects for small business that will be reeling much more quickly and more acutely than big business,” he said.
This means the country will need to borrow money to “basically save the economy from free fall and save families from catastrophe,” Welch said.
He added that providing some of these protections will probably end up in a political debate between the Democrats and Republicans - a statement that foreshadowed the shouting match that took place on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Monday.
The participants in the March 20 call represented a broad section of Windham County and the state's business community. People from municipalities, chambers of commerce, state agencies, local businesses, and downtown organizations received updates on state and federal legislation.
“The purpose of the call today is to ensure we have a process to share current and accurate information,” said Adam Grinold, executive director of the BDCC.
He added that the regular calls would allow people in the region to inform state and federal representatives about their experience on the ground. The calls were also intended to help the region build a local support system and strategy for how to respond to the COVID-19 virus.
Updates included state legislation in progress, child care, unemployment filings, loans available to small businesses, and tax filings.
Among other legislative measures, the House of Representatives has passed a bill, now making its way through the Senate, that adds protections for workers and employers.
The bill waives increases in employer insurance rates as a consequence of cutbacks that have taken place as a result of COVID-19. It also affirms benefits for employees who must stop working because they have contracted the disease or must care for family members who are ill.
According to state Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, the banking industry is urging individuals or businesses having difficulty making payments on bank debts to reach out to their creditors. The banks are trying to be flexible about repayments right now, she said.
Information for which no answers exist - yet
Local business owners and representatives said they needed concrete information about support for which they are eligible and how best to fill out the paperwork to access it.
Meg Staloff, program coordinator of Wilmington Works, asked what “term,” or time frame, businesses should use when filling out assistance forms.
R.T. Brown of the BDCC said that June should work, and added that the virus's impact will probably extend beyond June, but that businesses would have to start somewhere.
In response to Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA), who noted that business owners are trying to help their employees apply for unemployment assistance, a staff member said people could find COVID-19-specific information on the Department of Labor's website at labor.vermont.gov.
Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates asked a question that summed up the uncertainty of the moment: How can businesses make decisions for the future or even respond to the present without a better understanding of when things will return to some kind of normal?
“What's challenging is not really knowing what the planning horizon is,” Stevens said. “Until that uncertainty gets some kind of clarity, what is the plan?”
“You're totally right, and I have no information - and nobody has any information,” Welch replied. “So we're going to have to live through a period of uncertainty.”
“Now what can mitigate that and the long-term economic consequences is an economic response from the federal government that meets the scope of the challenge,” Welch added.