News on doorstep has seldom been this bad

Phil Castle

The lyrics from a Don McLean song fester in my mind, but I can’t think of a more succinct summary: bad news on the doorstep.

I can recall only a few times over the course of a more than 40-year career in newspaper journalism when so much news has turned so bad. The terrorist attacks on that September morning in 2001 come to mind, of course. So does the Great Recession that played out through 2008 and part of 2009. But the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 threatens to eclipse those events in terms every bit as individually tragic and globally profound.

Take it from a journalist. There’s no more sure a sign of the seriousness of a crisis than when certain adjectives appear in news stories — among them grim, staggering and unprecedented. Those words and others have been used with increasing frequency to describe the exponential toll of coronavirus in terms of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. The same portent arises when new phrases so quickly become part of routine conversations. Think social distancing to flatten the curve.

The news for businesses and the economy has been no less alarming. It’s been my privilege to work as editor of the Business Times for more than 20 years. Not once in that span has a single issue reported on multiple indicators crashing in such historic fashion. The Leeds Business Confidence Index, a measure of confidence among Colorado business leaders, dropped more than 21 points to 29.7 for the second quarter. That’s the biggest single quarterly decline to the lowest level ever. The National Federation of Independent Business reported its Small Business Optimism Index fell 8.1 points in March, the largest monthly decrease on record for that index. Meanwhile, the millions of people claiming unemployment benefits in the United State have that indicator soaring like a rocket. Prospects loom for a recession and double-digit jobless rates.

The coronavirus pandemic is a two-headed monster, a public health crisis that by necessity has become an economic crisis.

There’s nothing more important than the lives of those afflicted by the disease. Every one of them is a son or daughter. Many of them are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. Every life is unique and irreplaceable. Every life matters, making it a priority to save as many as possible. One of the best ways to slow the spread of the disease and save lives is to keep people far enough apart they don’t infect each another.

That also affects businesses that generate revenue serving congregations of people. Theaters and gyms close. Restaurants are limited to carry out and delivery. Even those businesses that remain open suffer as customers hunker down at home. The tapestry that is an economy unravels. As demand decreases, so does the need for supplies and the vendors that provide them. While not a matter of life or death, the additional tragedies that unfold become those of sales or no sales, jobs or no jobs. Entrepreneurial dreams turn into nightmares.

The results of surveys of business owners and managers confirm the process. Fully 92 percent of those responding to a survey conducted by the NFIB reported the coronavirus outbreak had affected their operations, and 80 percent reported slower sales. In the Grand Valley, 50 percent of those who responded to a survey conducted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce reported decreasing sales — anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent or more. Those proportions are likely to rise in subsequent chamber surveys.

It’s sorely tempting to try to ignore bad news. And certainly understandable to want to at least tune it out for a while to preserve sanity. I’ve always believed, though, in the power of knowledge, a realistic assessment of bad and good in making important decisions. That’s especially true for the decisions business owners face on a daily basis.

As a journalist, I’ve strived over the course of my career to neither sensationalize bad news nor spoon feed readers only good news. I try hard to just call them as I see them.

Moreover, I’ve discovered that even in the midst of reporting the baddest news, there’s always good news as well. And it’s invariably about the ways people find to help others. That’s the beauty — and resilience — of the human spirit.

That’s been evident in the Grand Valley in the ways people help each other and those on the front lines of the battle, whether that’s in hospitals or grocery stores. That’s been evident as well in the ways customers help businesses and the ways businesses help other businesses.

It’s a well-worn phrase, but also well worth repeating: Tough times never last, but tough people do.

And that reminds of the lyrics of another song, this one by Stephen Foster. It’s my wish for everyone everywhere enduring this pandemic with the hope their lives and business operations soon return to normal.

Hard times come again no more.