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A False Choice: How The Coronavirus Married Public Health & The Economy

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(Tyler Lake, WTIU/WFIU News)

With vaccine availability for the general public likely still months away, more Hoosier lives will be lost. But is a full shutdown the answer?

Experts say arriving at a definitive answer to the question is difficult—largely because the systems in place to prevent such a collapse in the United States haven't acted properly.

Tanya Mentgen doesn’t need any more data to understand how hard 2020 has been on her business. She owns 3 Fat Labs—an event venue and bed breakfast in Putnam County. The pandemic kept people away during one of her busiest times of year.

“I ended up cancelling March, April, May and most of June,” she said. “That’s pretty much four months of revenue. The staff didn’t make any money.” 

READ MORE: How Will Indiana Distribute COVID-19 Vaccines? Here's What You Need To Know

Appearing in the Netflix series Say I Do led to a significant increase in bookings for 2021, but Mentgen worries if virus cases are still high next year, people will continue to cancel their plans, weddings and events.

“With the ones that were postponed and moved and the few that decided to cancel, I probably took a $175,000 hit,” she said.

The governor’s latest order restricts crowd sizes to 25 in the highest risk counties—which was nearly half the state last week. Larger events can still receive special permits from local health departments, but that process can be time intensive.

State, Local Government Responses Handicapped 

Experts say robust contact tracing programs would allow for the greatest economic freedom, while limiting the virus’s spread. Even if businesses are closed, targeted aid could assist them.

Multiple local health officials say data from contact tracing is incomplete. The most recent report from the Fairbanks School of Public revealed testing only reveals one out of every 11 true infections.

Further, Congress is still debating a second economic stimulus, which has limited what state and local officials can do.

“We are granted the authority to take away people’s ability to do things, and to restrict them in terms of commerce,” Fishers Mayor, Scott Fadness, a Republican, said. “But as a government we are not provided the resources to alleviate some of those restrictions.”

Fadness has implemented additional restrictions on his community and mandated masks in hopes of slowing the virus’s spread. He insists one of the most difficult parts of governing during a pandemic is identifying the strategies that will change human behavior. 

“We do these things, and they [health officials] take an unbelievable amount of negativity for it, and then the curve doesn’t go down. That is extremely frustrating,” he admits.

Many agree the lack of federal support paired with poor contact tracing has led to the difficult choices Holcomb and local governments face.

READ MORE: Local Health Officials Say Indiana's Contact Tracing Efforts 'Unacceptable'

“We didn't have a public health, push in the governor's ear that was as impactful as the business community,” Eileen White, a former epidemiologist at the newly formed Fishers Health Department said. 

She insists “it became a choice that doesn't really exist. Because you can't really have a strong economy during a pandemic if people don't trust, people won't go spend money.”  White said many have “gotten into this battle about whether the economy should open or we should take care of the virus, but it's really that it all has to work together.”

White said she’s worked as an epidemiologist in several states, and was eager to help her local health department in Fishers that formed when the pandemic first began earlier this spring.  

The department’s formation had post-pandemic growth in mind. Leaders hoped it could help attract and retain more workers, while improving the city’s overall quality of life and mental health. The mayor believes it will continue to grow and work across city departments.

However, White resigned after just a few weeks on the job alleging political bias impacted science and data.

“There's always some political component to any governmental job and you can't deny that that that lives in everything,” White claims. “But what I had never experienced before which is new for most people in public health is this twisting of data to fit a narrative that the data does not support.”

The mayor categorically denied the allegations, and pointed to his implementation of additional restrictions as proof.

“In a perfect world you would have both capabilities so that you could architect a solution that says, ‘Hey we have to change these behaviors for a period of time and we know that has economic consequence and we can tailor a solution to our local economy to try to ease the burden on those most impacted,’” Fadness said.

But that’s not the case. State and local governments are often handcuffed by the aid Congress provides.

Gary Lemon, a Professor of Economics and Management at DePauw University, supports a second stimulus. Lemon insists Congress is positioned to act in ways individual states can’t.

“[States] in essence have to balance their budget[s],” he said. “When the economy is being pushed down in Indiana the revenue goes down which means that they [states] have less resources to spend.”

In addition to helping individuals and some companies, Lemon says he supports additional funds to assist states. He worries if aid does not come, certain employees could lose their jobs.

Lives vs. Economy: A False Choice

White says choosing between fewer infections and an open economy is a false choice. But, believes a number of factors contribute to this narrative.

“I see that this is a struggle, right, nobody in public health is saying that the economy isn't important,” she said. “But what we're saying is that lots and lots of people getting sick will impact the economy.”

White points to many hospitals across the state and country that are at or near capacity. She insists, “We are not in a better place, and I think we've seen that the choices that were made did not work. We need to switch to a public health first approach,” she insists.

Micah Pollak, an economist at Indiana University Northwest, agrees.

“When you talk about like the stay-at-home order, or shutting down the economy, that's an extreme,” he said. “The optimal should be something where we identify the things that are spreading the virus the most, and are also the easiest for us to reduce.”

For many, it’s too late. The pandemic’s impact has been more acutely felt in certain populations. Lemon, says employees unable to work from home—like Mentgen’s—have been among the hardest hit.

“The burden has not been distributed equally across all sectors,” he said. “People who cannot work remotely have been hit harder.”

All Mentgen and her employees can hope for is the coronavirus—and restrictions it has been married to in 2020—will be mitigated when weddings begin this spring.

“It’s been felt by me. It’s been felt by all of the mom and pops in town.” Mentgen said some of the vendors she regularly worked with have closed because of the pandemic. “It’s the mom and pop-type businesses that are really feeling the effect of it.”

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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