The last two months have certainly posed a challenge that I did not foresee when I took the oath of office for County Mayor last year; Salt Lake County boasted an economy that was one of the nation’s best, with years of historically low unemployment rates and booming business.
The threat of coronavirus is one that we haven’t experienced before in our lifetimes, and it has required some tough decisions. At Salt Lake County, we declared a state of emergency and issued Public Health Orders to ensure the health and safety of our residents and to flatten the curve, so we didn’t overwhelm the world-class medical facilities that call our community home. Prevention and safety measures have been successful and continue to be hopeful. The efforts that we took early on have allowed Salt Lake County to avoid a worse fate – a fate that many other U.S. metro areas are experiencing.
As nearly 50% of the state’s jobs are in Salt Lake County, we heavily weighed our decisions, knowing they would impact so many. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 required certain businesses to temporarily close or alter their operations, which has led to a loss of jobs and income for our residents, and a loss of revenue and business activity for our small businesses.
Knowing that COVID-19 would change our community’s economy, we set out to mitigate those impacts by setting up an Economic Impact Working Group in March to take a deep dive into the economic response. We set up a Business Relief Hotline to help small businesses navigate the diverse and sometimes unclear loan programs coming from federal levels, in addition to state and local resources. We increased our outreach to the underserved business community, through a new community liaison to ensure that all businesses are aware of the resources available to them.
We also created an Economic Impact Information Portal so the valley’s municipalities and other key partners can respond to this crisis nimbly and with the best information possible. To further enhance data-driven decision making, we are also conducting local consumer sentiment surveys to understand the attitudes of Salt Lake County residents as they re-engage with the economy. Understanding when and how residents are ready to engage with the economy – from dining at a restaurant to visiting a bowling alley, from getting their nails done to shopping for new clothes – is critical to understanding the short-, mid-, and long-term impacts that this pandemic will have on our community. We anticipate the first batch of results this week.
As local leaders, we cannot solely be reactive. Now is the perfect time to begin shifting the conversation to how we will become more resilient moving forward. Salt Lake County is looking forward toward long-term solutions to the economic vulnerabilities that COVID-19 has laid bare.
Using research that our Economic Development team completed in 2019, we are framing the future of work in a post-COVID economy. What will work look like moving forward? Will office spaces become a thing of the past? Will limiting the number of employees present at any given time change the way we manufacture goods and construct homes? Will this speed up the adoption of robotics, artificial intelligence, and other automation technologies to avoid similar economic slowdowns in the future?
One thing is clear: we need to begin now to prepare our residents and businesses for what the future holds. We need to work collaboratively to upskill and retrain individuals who may not have a job to go back to. We need to find solutions to get residents back to work in living-wage jobs.
Similarly, we need to ensure that the jobs people go back to are jobs that people want, jobs where they feel valued and appreciated, and where they are well-compensated for their efforts. We need to make sure that those who work in essential industries are treated as essential.
All of this requires a future-oriented response. While the interventions we have made are saving lives and have staved off the worst impacts thus far, we need to acknowledge that, while necessary, they are not the end. Now is the time to become even more proactive, preparing our residents and our businesses for a future work environment that will look very different from the one we’ve left behind.