The coronavirus outbreak has unleashed unimaginable fear and heartbreak upon our country and the world. At the beginning of this crisis, each of us worried that either we or those close to us would get sick. That concern remains today, and justifiably so. No one wants to suffer or see our loved ones suffer.
That concern also includes not wanting to endure the financial pain this virus has caused for so many of our citizens and workers, from the widespread, forced shutdown of businesses deemed non-essential by governments. The hardship this has caused already is staggering — and will become more so, particularly in Nevada, if our economy doesn’t open up soon.
In 1933 at the worst point of the Great Depression, America’s national unemployment rate peaked at 24.9 percent. More recently, it reached 10 percent during the Great Recession in 2009, with Nevada’s economy hit especially hard; the Silver State endured the worst unemployment, bankruptcy and home-foreclosure crises in the nation. Our unemployment rate hit 14.9 percent.
Yet as awful as the Great Recession was, the consequences of our current economic shutdown threaten to be far worse. Economists estimate our national unemployment rate could be between 32 and 41 percent. This would not only dwarf what we saw during the Great Recession, but would significantly exceed even the Great Depression figure. Nevada’s tourism-driven economy would once again suffer the most. Indeed, we are already on our way down that road. In the past month, Nevada has seen more than 300,000 new unemployment claims, and approximately 20 percent of Nevada’s workers have lost their jobs. This data already substantially exceeds the national unemployment rate.
Often overlooked is the array of other maladies always accompanying financial strife. Our job-loss numbers are not merely statistics; they are tragedies — individual, personal tragedies — of lives damaged, sometimes ruined. During times of chronic unemployment, people suffer in ways beyond, though largely driven by, their financial difficulties. We see increases in crime, substance abuse, domestic violence, depression, even suicide.
And we must be mindful of this truth: It is the low-income individuals among us, already struggling financially and least able to sustain further hardship, who suffer disproportionately. CEOs and high-level executives aren’t the ones on the phone all day, on hold, waiting for somebody from the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation to take their call and hear their claim. It’s the workers who are the backbone of our economy. The human toll resulting from our self-imposed financial collapse is not theoretical; it can and will be every bit as tragic as that caused by a public-health threat.
Those who are setting public policy in the face of this crisis must reject the false, binary choice that many opinion-shapers are trying to present. This is not a matter of weighing lives against our economy. We’re weighing lives against lives. Acting otherwise, and taking an unbalanced, all-or-nothing approach may be the politically expedient road, but it’s not what this situation demands. A purely maximalist approach is not statesmanship — and it will not only cost Nevada financially, it will cost us more lives.
It is time for Nevada to begin the process of re-opening our economy. The latest data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation indicate our state has passed the peak of our death rate, and that our hospital-bed situation — a major area of concern since the beginning of this crisis — is under control, with 2,247 beds available and only 386 needed.
Re-opening our economy, of course, doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — mean taking the same kind of all-or-nothing approach we see in the current shutdown. It should look more like a toggle than a light switch. As businesses open, we can still intervene and close things down if and when we see spikes in coronavirus cases in specific areas or communities.
Our elected leaders and public officials will continue to face difficult decisions during the process of re-opening, and they must meet the challenges ahead. But they won’t be alone. Nevada’s entertainment industry has long been a world leader in entrepreneurial dynamism and innovation, and as economic activity resumes, we can and should trust our business leaders and workers to lead us back to prosperity — responsibly and safely. They don’t want to get sick, or see their co-workers and customers get sick, any more than the rest of us do. We should trust them to take the necessary pre-cautions within their own places of business to promote good public health, and to protect their fellow citizens as best they can. And we should trust small businesses all across Nevada to exercise the same good judgment.
We cannot and must not compound this tremendous public-health crisis by pursuing a course that does not adequately consider the personal tragedies our policies are causing for unprecedented numbers of our fellow citizens.
It’s time for Nevada to get back to work.
Adam Laxalt is the former Attorney General of Nevada.