Jessica Metta had worked on economic response to disasters before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. in 2020.
Late in 2019, the then-deputy director of Mid-Columbia Economic Development District (MCEDD) helped complete an assessment of the region’s response to natural disasters like landslides and wildfires. Metta, who was named MCEDD executive director in March 2020, said the pandemic put theory from the assessment into practice.
The idea for an “economic resiliency team” to provide support from a unified, interagency voice to businesses in a time of disaster was drafted after 2017’s Eagle Creek Fire.
Throughout the pandemic, Metta has co-convened Mid-Columbia Economic Resiliency Team (MCERT) with Nate Stice, who is Gov. Kate Brown’s Regional Solutions coordinator for the region.
The team itself has 49 members, and Metta said digital meetings have been attended by as many as 300 people. The team includes representatives from government agencies, chambers of commerce and ports, federal legislators’ offices and tourism organizations.
Michael Held, regional development officer for Business Oregon, said the idea for MCERT ended up being implemented across Oregon through the Regional Solutions program. He said the teams respond to disasters in three phases: Response, stabilization and recovery.
Held said the pandemic has blurred lines between the three phases which would normally be clear when responding to events like floods, landslides or fires.
“Many levers are being pulled at the same time which impact all three phases,” Held said.
Metta said MCERT has helped businesses sift through correspondence from federal and state governments. The team has provided training on pandemic-specific scenarios like how to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak at work.
Held said recent conversations with businesses have had a different tone from early in the pandemic. He said some sectors have stabilized and are now operating more like they would in a traditional recession.
Businesses that rely on social gatherings are still acutely impacted and the service industry still needs support going forward, Held said.
Demand for aid outweighs supply
Business Oregon has administered several rounds of financial aid for businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Held’s office most recently distributed funds in November, 2020 when they received $20 million from the state.
He said his office opened an online portal for applications less than 24 hours after the program was approved. The portal was opened on a midweek afternoon and was closed 22 minutes later after 2,400 businesses applied for over $100 million in aid.
“We knew it would go quick, we did not know it would be that quick,” Held said. “There were a lot of hard phone calls we had to make, unfortunately, saying that even if they got an application in that 22 minutes, they may not have received funding.”
Team member Greg Price directs the small business development center (SBDC) at Columbia Gorge Community College. The SBDC is funded by Business Oregon and The U.S. Small Business Administration.
Because of its ties to the SBA, which administers Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Price said his staff found themselves on the frontlines of COVID-19 financial relief from the jump.
Price said people have grown wary of taking on debt, even debt that will likely be forgiven like EIDL and PPP loans. He said the EIDL program, which is decades-old and is geared toward natural disasters, is a good example of the issue with using debt as a vehicle for support.
“This can be dangerous because many businesses qualify who may not be able to service that debt,” Price said. “It’s a big risk that some have had to take.”
Price said some businesses have utilized loans effectively, but others have taken on debt when they shouldn’t have. He said the SBDC has worked with businesses to make sure they understand the debt-and-forgiveness aspect of aid programs.
Held said he hopes regulators will realize that taking on debt is not an option for many. He said he is concerned about how much money acutely impacted businesses have left.
“The need out there is real,” Held said. “The pain employers are experiencing is legitimate and the hardship workers are experiencing is heartbreaking.”
Price said improvements could be made, but regulators find themselves in a lose-lose situation trying to balance health and public safety with stabilizing the economy.
“The core of the problem is that we can’t loan or grant our way out of this,” Price said. “This is really just a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”
Price said “this is a scalpel problem which the federal government has no choice but to address with a shotgun.” He said state money can be more precisely utilized, but states can’t take on debt and money has to come from departmental budgets or “rainy-day funds.”
Held said the economic crisis and the health crisis caused by the pandemic are intrinsically related. He said Americans “should not expect a full economic recovery until the virus is contained and people feel safe to return to their lives.
“It’s important for all of us to have some patience with each other,” Held said. “It’s hard seeing a neighbor lose their shirt, but it’s also hard seeing a family member get sick with the virus.”
Held said trends from summer and fall 2020 are now being translated into hard data showing who has been affected most economically. He said all levels of government can now start thinking about how to support critically impacted sectors towards recovery.
Held said planning for recovery will likely begin during the first three-to-six months of 2021. He said internal discussions “in the pre-planning stage” have begun at Business Oregon, in economic development districts like MCEDD and in the governor’s office.
Metta said MCEDD has received some CARES funding to work on economic recovery in the area and the district will be beginning an update on its regional development strategy in 2021.
Price said he thinks the region will be better prepared for the next unforeseen disaster, which he said is inevitably coming someday. He said stronger partnerships and new tools have been created, leaders have emerged, and investments in infrastructure and workforce have been made.