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My Neighbors Are Essential PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
May 2020

We need sane policy on business closures

EPix_JayBeskin_0520very once in a while you read an article whose big prediction seems to be solidly based in knowledge and analysis, and you put it down at the end thinking this guy or gal just may be right.

Then a few years go by, and that same forecast has been squashed by reality like a bug, and suddenly it turns up unbidden in your memory bank. You find yourself starting to laugh out loud, but there are too many people around, so you smother the laugh with a little cough and walk away. If you’re home alone, though, you can put your head back and laugh it up.

There were articles in the mid- or late-1980s that explained why the era of film animation was over for good. All those thousands of little drawings were too expensive to produce, with each one occupying the screen for a split second until the next drawing, with its infinitesimally advanced view of the same bit of action. Disney would soon shut down its animation division entirely, so the argument went, and concentrate on making high school romance films for its young audiences.

This was, of course, before The Lion King and Aladdin and Toy Story, and all the most successful animated films of all time, enhanced these days by computer graphics.

Another such article that seems laughable in retrospect was written about a decade ago on the subject of quarantines. I wish I could remember where it was published, but it was most likely in one of those thoughtful magazines that takes itself much too seriously.

It spoke of the fact that there were still these antiquated quarantine laws on the books from the bad old days of polio and smallpox and scarlet fever. Imagine the idea of someone enforcing a quarantine in this day and age! How quaint…it could never happen! Who’d even stand for such a thing? All the civil liberties activists would be up in arms. It was time to take those superannuated laws off the books and put them in some museum of anachronistic attitudes, along with public floggings and debtors’ prisons.

Looking back, that seems like such a pristine moment in time. We have to laugh at the writer who got it so wrong, but this is a grim sort of laughter because we feel like the joke is on us. Not only are we old pros at going into quarantine, but it has come to define our very way of life.

When we leave the house for some errand that cannot be kicked any further down the road, we step outside half sheepishly, half shamefully, like the Count of Monte Cristo suddenly freed from prison, walking right into National Lampoon’s European Vacation. We feel vaguely guilty about breathing this outdoor air, as if it is reserved for a better class of people.

There is a lot of talk about when to open things back up, and I know better than to get caught in the middle between the doctors and politicians on that one. For the most part, I figure that once we have gone this far, the last thing we want to do is to be careless about managing the rebound, and I’ll leave it at that.

But as someone whose political career was at the local level, I feel there is a lesson to be learned about how to handle small business in the future. The truth is, we got one word very wrong in this shutdown. That was the categorization of businesses by the adjective of “essential.”

We left the essential open and forced everyone else to close their doors. The result was to hurt a whole class of people we desperately need to maintain the feeling that distinguishes a sci-fi robot cosmopolis from a human town within a small city like Aventura.

We need the shoe repair guy and the computer repair guy and the appliance repair guy and the sweet lady in the antique store and the goofy guy with the spiky hair in the collectibles shop.

We need the comic book guy and the lady who sells beads for stringing necklaces and the couple who run the optician shop and the store that sells puppets and knickknacks.

We need the older lady who runs the tailor shop and who can fix anything but who comes up with weird prices as she goes along, and we need that guy who fixes vacuum cleaners and sharpens knives.

And we need that jewelry store where the one guy with a green eyeshade is puttering with watch mechanisms while his relatives work the phones and the counters.

We may not understand how some of these people can make a living all year round, but we do know that they’re “people people,” if not of the backslapping variety. They are the shopkeepers and the vendors, no less quaint and nice or piquant -- and necessary -- than the people who occupied the same storefronts a half century ago.

But our local governments have sent these business owners home and robbed from them their daily bread. And not because their stores or products required too much proximity, but just because they thought all people should stay home unless it was essential for them to leave.

And now our streets are denuded of their charm and their flavor. There are no quirky characters, no goofy merchants, no much-needed repairmen and --women -- just swarms of masked desperadoes in a frantic and unending quest for a roll of toilet paper. There must be one somewhere, anywhere! We must never give up!

I think that if something like this novel virus ever shows up again, we cannot forsake our novelty just to escape it. Any store or booth that can sell its goods or provide its services one customer at a time, with a respectful distance between the merchant and the customer, should always be allowed to remain open.

We need a better designation than “essential,” and we should be preventing crowd scenes in close quarters, instead of making people stand with holes in their shoes reading a sign explaining why the city shut down poor José from putting a pair of soles for 30 bucks.

The soles can wait, perhaps, but the souls cannot. We don’t live in houses -- we live in neighborhoods.

I hope this important concern is addressed. Perhaps there are plans already for this, which have not been publicized. I would like to see this project bear fruit, not remain a virgin, so to speak.

 

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