Millennials experienced the horror of 9/11 as students and the uncertainty of the financial crisis as we entered the workforce. Now the coronavirus is altering American life as we raise families and run small businesses. Although millennials are not yet well represented in local government, the actions of elected officials in the coming weeks will have great bearing on our young families and small businesses.
Elected officials have urgently communicated the importance of social distancing. But the more nuanced message needed now is this: Some of our behavior must change immediately, but we cannot allow fear to control every aspect of our lives. We have a responsibility to try to limit the degree to which our local economy will be devastated by the coronavirus.
Some millennial-owned online businesses in Hamilton County are dealing with catastrophic drops in sales that will inevitably lead to layoffs. Others are already exploring emergency loan options from the Small Business Administration.
If you are financially secure or have a stable income, it is critical you continue to spend money. Continue to shop online — particularly think of supporting small e-commerce companies you have done business with. Reach out to local small businesses on Facebook and buy a gift card for future use. As Gov. Bill Lee encouraged the state, go out of your way to pick up food from locally owned restaurants.
In recent days, conservatives and liberals have considered a litany of ways to get direct cash payments to citizens. The U.S. House passed a coronavirus response last week, and the Senate is currently pondering a trillion dollar relief package.
With our politics becoming increasingly nationalized, it's in moments like these we are reminded how few politicians in Washington have ever run or been involved in a small business. With a few exceptions, members of Congress appear disconnected from the realities of small business owners facing tough decisions ranging from payroll to keeping their doors open. Will a $1,000 check to all Americans help small businesses that may be prevented from doing business the next couple of months? Not likely.
The trillions about to be spent in Washington will bring some relief, even if the effects are poorly executed, but soon the onus is going to be on local leaders, elected and unelected, to guide their communities out of a health crisis that could become an unparalleled crisis for small businesses.
Elected officials who lead us through these rough waters with transparency, humility and competence will be long remembered. And now local elected leaders must fulfill the hands-on responsibility of government closest to the people. They must use their influence to call landlords and ask for leniency for small businesses, give direction to church families itching to help neighbors, and calm the anxieties of senior citizens separated from families.
Undoubtedly, the positive tests for coronavirus in Hamilton County will increase as more tests become available. While most of our local elected officials are not "digital native" millennials, they must harness the power of our connected world and provide citizens with as much real-time information as possible.
While many of us stay close to home and chafe from a lack of social engagement, elected officials can create a sense of community by sharing what they know and giving us guidance on ways we can engage remotely to support needy families and small businesses.
Considering how unusual this crisis is, it is best mitigated by creative solutions at levels of government closest to people. Prominent Chattanoogans in the private sector are already preparing novel approaches for assistance to local businesses. But that leadership will need to be matched by our elected officials to limit the long-term damage to the small businesses that are the fabric of our community.
Weston Wamp, a political reform advocate, is a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents.