As public schools begin to close during one of the most brutal onslaughts of COVID-19 yet, some have taken to criticize federal and local responses to the economic conditions brought on by COVID-19 and why restaurants are more prioritized than public schools. With a new administration in January, that might change. What will Joe Biden do for restaurants and schools during COVID-19?
New York City has the largest public school system in the country with 1.1 million students for 1,800 schools. It shut down on Thursday, November 19 after the city came above a 3 percent positivity rate in COVID-19 for seven days. While schools are closed — and it’s not clear when they will reopen — for the time being, indoor dining, gyms, and other places of businesses are still operating at a reduced capacity in the city.
The decision to close schools but keep restaurants open has angered many parents in NYC, and it’s not hard to understand why. After all, restaurants aren’t essential services. Parents who are struggling with juggling work and parenting during the pandemic know that. But ideally, by the time January 20 rolls around, and President-Elect Joe Biden takes office, a federal plan for how to handle school closures and economic shutdowns will be implemented.
Why Are Restaurants Staying Open While Schools Close?
One major reason that restaurants remain open while the halls of instruction are closed to kids is that no one — not the states, not the federal government, not anyone — has helped provide financial support to businesses to help keep them closed. There hasn’t been a meaningful stimulus for small businesses since March through the PPP program, and there has been no targeted federal support for restaurants whatsoever.
Many states have done, for the most part, what they can to help restaurants stay closed to diners or operate just on a take-out basis only, but states, unlike the federal government, can’t deficit spend, meaning that while the federal government has the cash to spend at a deficit, states literally cannot. Their hands are functionally tied.
For the most part, restaurant workers also don’t have union protections like teachers do. Union protected workers have more rights to safety than those who aren’t involved in unions and can lead to industry shutdowns for worker safety more quickly than people who, say, work in food service.
Meanwhile, restaurants are usually not even making enough money to survive even though they aren’t being forced to close. There are a number of factors as to why this is true: reduced capacity rules, the general financial downturn, and people’s spending habits changing all at once.
It’s a quagmire — but it doesn’t have to be this way. Under a Joe Biden administration, per one of the COVID-19 experts on his team, restaurants could be paid to stay closed while schools remain open, therefore stemming mass restaurant closures, the economy grinding to a halt, and evictions and poverty of American workers, while keeping schools operating.
Would Joe Biden Never Close Schools?
Dr. Celine Gounder, a COVID-19 advisor to President-elect Joe Biden, hinted at a totally different approach to the economic and educational challenges of COVID-19 than that of his predecessor. In an interview with The New York Times, Gounder said, “If you have widespread community transmission, there may come a tipping point where you do need to go back to virtual schooling. But I think the priority is to try to keep schools open as much as possible, and to provide the resources for that to happen.”
What Would The Biden Administration Prioritize When It Came to COVID Spread?
Restaurants, bars, gyms, and other non-essential services like nail salons or even a family party have been the sources of major COVID-19 outbreaks — none of which are essential services that need to be provided like health care or grocery access. The Biden administration appears to treat these industries as such.
Dr. Gounder added: “I would consider school an essential service… We know that the risk of transmission in schools is not zero, but they’re not amplifying transmission the way some of these other places are.”
And yes, she did say that restaurants are a major driver of COVID-19. This is simply science. Admitting it, however, could put restaurant owners and workers on edge, as the implication in that statement is that they could be closed to diners, or at least indoor diners until the weather gets warmer and a vaccine is rolled out. That could take months and months and months — and would effectively lead restaurants to bleed out and economic devastation to roll through one of the largest industries in the country that employs over 15 million people. Add that to the fact that the industry already runs on paper-thin margins: anything less than full capacity is functionally not profitable.
Can Biden Actually Close Restaurants — Or Schools?
It’s not as simple as it seems. Just like Trump hasn’t been able to unilaterally demand that schools stay open throughout the beginning months of the pandemic, there’s little to suggest that Biden could close all restaurants across the country without an executive order or keep schools open, either. But what his administration can do is coordinate a functional pandemic response that would give private businesses the funds to stay closed and survive and schools the funds to stay open safely amid the pandemic, as well as enact a federal testing program and authorize the Defese Production Act to produce masks and medical gear. That could drive down infection rates, keep schools open, get people to work, keep frontline workers safer, and stop the economy’s freefall in one fell swoop.
Dr. Gounder says that the Biden team seems to understand that. “We need to be supporting those businesses, whether it’s the restaurant owners and the people working in those restaurants because it is not fair that they are bearing a very heavy brunt of the economic fallout from this.”
And that’s very true. The only way forward for the Biden team — and for America’s working parents, many of whom do work in restaurants — is to prioritize keeping schools open above all else; while paying people and businesses to stay closed. What we need is a federal government that understands that — and is willing to put in the work to save our businesses and keep our kids in schools.