By Ray Hunkins, columnist
On March 22 I wrote a column entitled “And Then, What?” which was published on this site.
The point of the piece was to remind us that policy makers charting a course for battling the Wuhan corona virus in Wyoming and the Nation, needed input and recommendations from those familiar with economic issues, in addition to those familiar with the medical issues involved.
Before choosing a course of action, it was suggested, the decision makers pondering the extension of the economic shutdown, should ask, “if we extend the economic shutdown, then what?”.
The President, acting on the recommendation of his medical advisors, utilizing what was soon to be shown as grossly inaccurate models, extended the voluntary shutdown, by a month, until the end of April. The strategy in extending the shutdown was “to bend the curve.”
We were told that, “bending the curve,” meant to eliminate the possibility of overwhelming the medical infrastructure by having too many patients hospitalized at the same time. Various governors, including Wyoming’s, announced compatible measures, some voluntary, some mandatory.
We now have had roughly a month of economic inactivity, or at least sharply diminished economic activity. It is now possible to observe both the progress of the “war” on the virus and the “war’s” impact on our economy. Neither are pretty, but a question yet to be answered is this: is the economic shutdown necessary beyond the end of April?
The “war” on the virus, in some form, will continue until the virus is no longer a significant threat to our population. Tactics (as opposed to strategy) will continue to be debated. The medical people have explained that the pause in economic activity is not designed to eliminate contagion of the disease, only to delay contagion until the apex has passed so as not to overwhelm the hospitals.
Once the shutdown is lifted, transmission of the disease will resume unless there is immunity. Immunity can be achieved with a vaccine or by what is known as, “herd immunity”.
So far, the “war” has produced the following relevant medical statistics: As of this writing (April 5), our government reports 330,00 cases of corona virus, out of a population of 331 million, with 9,528 deaths. About half the cases and more than half of the deaths are located in just three states: New York, New Jersey and Michigan.
In Wyoming, 207 cases have been reported out of a population of 567,000. Five Wyoming counties have had no reported cases. Three counties report only one case. Only five counties report more than 10 cases.
The greatest number of cases is in Laramie County with 44. No deaths have been reported anywhere in Wyoming. Despite these statistics, the medical advisors in Washington, and some people in Wyoming, clamor for the imposition of statewide “stay at home” orders where none have yet been issued. Wyoming does not have such an order. The idea that Wyoming must, in the interest of public health, institute the same measures as the state of New York is preposterous.
The idea that residents of Platte County, where no cases have been reported, must obey the same orders as the residents of the five boroughs of New York City, where 68,000 cases have been reported, is ludicrous.
Yet the authoritarians among us, seeking uniformity of process, blithely advocate the imposition of draconian measures everywhere, urban and rural states alike, ignoring the facts, our federal system and the separation of powers mandated by our Constitution.
On April 4th, the Casper Star Tribune reported that 12% of the reported cases in Wyoming were known to have required hospitalization, though in 24% of the reported cases it was not known if hospitalization occurred. There are 1261 staffed hospital beds in Wyoming, according to the American Hospital Directory.
Hypothetically, in the unlikely event 36% of the reported cases required hospitalization, the patients would have taken up 71 beds across the state, assuming they were all in hospitals at the same time. Because of these facts, “bending the curve” of the disease in Wyoming would seem to be unnecessary, perhaps even unhelpful.
The “war” has also produced the following relevant economic statistics: Since March 1st, over 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment. The past two weeks have erased nearly all the jobs created in the past five years. But that is just the beginning. Financial advisor Stifel Nicolaus’ chief economist predicts peak unemployment of 30% in the U.S., saying in an April 3, 2020 report, “As we continue to keep the economy closed, more than 45 million Americans are expected to lose their jobs.” The St. Louis Fed agrees, predicting unemployment could rise to over 30%, surpassing the peak of the Great Depression.
In Wyoming, no current unemployment statistics are available, but on March 21, the Casper Star Tribune reported the Department of Work Force Services, which handles unemployment claims, was “inundated” with calls resulting from an order issued by the governor shutting down certain Wyoming businesses.
By order, all restaurants and bars were closed except for “take out”. The Department reported 37 people were assigned to take calls on that day and there still was an hour’s wait for callers on the Department’s multiple lines. About 10% of the state’s work force is involved in the food service and restaurant industry. In 2019, that amounted to 28,700 jobs.
With the widespread closing of eating establishments nationwide, not surprisingly the meat complex and cattle markets collapsed.
On April 5th, the Casper Star Tribune reported the biggest one-day loss in choice grade beef prices – $0.798 a pound and observed, “As public precautions regarding the novel coronavirus extend further into the spring, farmers and ranchers drift closer towards financial doomsday.”
This is a clear prediction that the “public precaution” mentioned might be synonymous with financial ruin for Wyoming agriculture. My friend Del Tinsley, former publisher of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and a cattleman himself, verifies that the feeder market tanked last week and Wyoming ranchers are more than a little concerned.
It’s impossible to predict the extent of the economic carnage that is being imposed on our nation and on Wyoming. When the dust settles, I believe we will see that for Wyoming, the cure has indeed been worse than the disease. That is simultaneously, both a blessing and a curse.
But, one thing is certain. The longer this shutdown goes on, the worse the carnage will be. All the government checks and loans, all the red tape and bureaucracy, all the billions and trillions of government largesse that will have to be repaid by someone – none of it will be the magic remedy that makes us economically well again- never mind “great.”
With appropriate precautions and best practices, we need to get back to work and we need to do it at the conclusion of the current shut down – at the end of this month – by May 1st. No more economic shutdown extensions.
The sooner Wyoming goes back to work, the sooner our restaurants and small businesses are opened for business, the sooner we can begin to climb out of this economic, cultural and social purgatory in which we have been placed. Placed there for 71 hospital beds that were available when needed.
Wyoming isn’t New York, New Jersey or Michigan. Chugwater isn’t Brooklyn. One size doesn’t fit all. It never has.
Ray Hunkins, author of the book, “The View From Thunderhead”, was the Republican nominee for Governor of Wyoming in 2006. He is now retired and lives in Cheyenne, west of Wheatland in the Laramie Mountains and in Tubac, Arizona. He is an Emeritus Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and the International Society of Barristers.