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Cambridge Businesses Need Help

By Derek G. Xiao
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Local businesses are struggling. The same stores that enrich our lives while on campus — offering everything from unnecessarily expensive lattes to take out Greek food — are now suffering the economic toll of our prolonged absence from campus. Deprived of a large chunk of their customer base and unsure about their near future, several decades-old, Harvard-reliant businesses like Café Pamplona and Dickson Bros. have been forced to shut down.

The dire economic trend is hardly limited to Harvard. Small businesses are struggling across the United States, closing by the tens of thousands and leaving former owners and employees reeling in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis. In the eyes of some, this crisis is a result of our response to the pandemic — of the excessive use of lockdowns and restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of a virus that has now infected over 14 million Americans.

But blaming the widespread economic hardship on the pandemic response alone is misguided. We agree that in some specific cases existing restrictions might be imperfect. Their purpose ought not to be about publicly proving a governing body's willingness to tackle the issue, but rather about actually doing so effectively while balancing other public interests. Some increasingly popular policies, like state-wide curfews, appear more arbitrary than effective; others prioritized the reopening of recreational facilities like bars over ensuring ready access to public education, reflecting poorly on our collective priorities. These approaches should be challenged and questioned, and businesses should be given as much ability to function as they can while being safe.

Yet the truth is that most businesses simply cannot operate safely under our current health climate, not while the country is setting daily records of new COVID-19 cases. Allowing them to reopen without restrictions, or expecting them to do so, is a disservice to both the health of their workers and patrons and that of the larger community. But that shouldn't mean they have to close down — not permanently, at least.

The economic challenges brought on by the pandemic have been frequently framed as a matter of cost-benefit analysis, a zero-sum game where we must choose between keeping people alive (generally considered a good thing) and ensuring they are not financially devastated (also important!). But we shouldn't have to choose between saving lives and saving businesses. In fact, we don't have to. Bold, effective government intervention — featuring both health-oriented restrictions and substantial economic support for affected businesses — could address our twin crises, keeping Americans safe and economically afloat.

Some regional actors, like the Cambridge City Council, are already trying to support small businesses, allocating $3.6 million to a business relief program including zero-interest loans and grants. The effort is commendable and worth continuing, but insufficient. Our current coronavirus catastrophe isn't confined to our city. The response shouldn't be either. We urgently need an effective national strategy, including another round of stimulus checks.

The federal government’s failure to pass the massive relief struggling businesses and workers need is enormously disappointing — disappointing not just on the usual abstract scale of realizing our much-revered institutions have become legislative graveyards, but also on a purely human level. Growing numbers of Americans are going hungry heading into the holidays; a housing crisis is slowly building up across the country. They've both been met by shameful inaction. The outgoing administration and the incoming administration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. must provide another round of stimulus checks and relief support for struggling small businesses, for the sake of economic forecasts and basic decency. The approach has been lauded by economists and is vehemently supported by majorities of both major parties — by voters who, unlike many of their representatives, seemingly understand the pressing nature of the issue. Continuing to ignore public and economic demands for relief is baffling and grossly irresponsible.

We don't want to see our favorite local businesses go — and we shouldn't have to. Stores like Pamplona Café, with its rich history and eclectic yellow walls, tend to prove more worthwhile than their big-chain, titanic counterparts like Starbucks. But they are also more vulnerable to big economic shocks. Forcing them to endanger the public to survive or close down is dystopic and, worse still, unnecessary.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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