Stop Telling Us What’s Essential

As we enter Phase III in reopening business in the North Bay, we’re at a critical juncture. We must question authority, demand more transparency and request comparative data. We must challenge our elected officials and stop them from force-feeding us partial answers.

Let’s begin with a key question: Who exactly is in charge of the shelter-in-place lockdown?

Is it our elected county supervisors? Or, is it the unelected health officers they’ve hired? Are these officers calling the shots and removing the supervisors from the responsibility of governing? Or, is it the other way around? Frankly, it’s hard to tell. Supervisors take credit when things are moving forward, but often defer answers to their health officers when we demand action.

The person—or group—behind the wheel is driving us down a road on which we’ve never ridden—one without lighting or signage. Beyond their expertise concerning viral spread, which experts are they consulting, regarding the negative consequences of this lockdown?

Surely, our supervisors aren’t know-it-alls. Who have they been consulting to minimize the negative side effects of this shutdown? Who’s helping them navigate through the increases around the country in domestic violence, child abuse, drug overdose and depression? In Sonoma County, seven citizens have taken their own lives in the same time period we’ve lost four souls to COVID-19. (Last year’s suicide rate during this same period was roughly half this.)

What precautions and policies have our supervisors and health officers put in place to allow us all to track this critical data, alongside the daily reporting on coronavirus infection and testing? Have they been seeking the advice and consent of their constituents, you and me, to weigh their virus-prevention decisions against these calamitous “side effects?”

We must become partners in the process, rather than mere subjects of the will of our supervisors.

I believe that what business activities are “essential” vs. “non-essential” is at the heart of the problem. We all swallowed this phrasing at the start of the pandemic. Most of us shuttered our businesses, furloughed valued employees, and cratered our abilities to feed our families. We entrusted our elected leadership with this decision. But now, 12 weeks later, this approach has lost its legitimacy with me.  What is considered essential or non-essential is too subjective.

Why have we been forced to wander past throngs of complete strangers in 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart bunkers to buy candles, jewelry and flowers, but told our neighborhood gift shops, jewelry stores and florists had to be shuttered? Why were liquor and weed stores deemed essential to satisfy our cravings, while local houses of worship were summarily shuttered at a time when soul searching and humility might have provided a more lasting salve?

I saw this similar lack of consistency in my own business investments. Our Sonoma County car wash businesses were shut down and forced to stay closed while similar operations remained open in Napa, Marin and in high COVID-19 areas such as Santa Clara County. For unexplained reasons, Sonoma County allowed Uber and Lyft to freely transport the infirm to doctors’ offices, but prohibited their vehicles from being professionally cleaned between trips. Uber Eats, Door Dash and Food Jet vehicles were considered essential. But ironically, they couldn’t keep their cars’ interiors sanitized and fresh at any Sonoma County car washes. Sonoma County was the only county in California that had such a ridiculous restriction; it eliminated hundreds of jobs in the area and prevented vehicles transporting people and food from staying clean.

Despite claims to the contrary, no one was “following the science” when they made such a ridiculous decision. There’s no scientific study in the world that suggests car washes transmit viruses. But I assure you we’ve seen thousands of filthy vehicles now that the car wash restriction has been lifted; each of them should’ve been cleaned after transporting strangers, food and loved ones during the shutdown.

Now is the time to pivot from this subjective phrasing and toward a more objective and science-based phrase—safe vs. unsafe.

We must demand that leadership move forward with safety protocols within all industries, not just the so-called “essential” ones. These protocols will indeed force us to change the way we do business, the number of patrons we can serve, and how we interact with our customers. However, these protocols don’t have to tread upon our God-given and constitutional freedoms.

Our health officers are well-intended scientists, but true novices when it comes to our economic well-being. Their opinions must be weighed more carefully alongside the economic and social problems their decisions create. The two must go hand-in-hand so that we may partner together to recover the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost throughout the Bay Area.

Your thoughts and counterpoints are always welcome. In fact, they are necessary as we navigate this treacherous and unmarked road. It’s precisely why I want to hear from you at Lawrence@Northbaybiz.com.