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Op-Ed Writer On How 'Essential' Business Designations Affects Minorities


As we just said, the rescue package just signed includes some provisions for small local businesses - small businesses employing nearly half of the private sector workforce, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Under the plan, businesses with less than 500 employees are eligible for nearly $350 billion in loans, which could help some businesses avoid layoffs. Ten million dollars in grant funding have been specifically set aside for minority-owned small businesses.

And all of this, of course, is meant to offset the impact of so many state and local governments having used shelter-in-place orders that closed all businesses not deemed essential. Essential businesses have been defined as supermarkets, banks, pharmacies and possibly laundromats and hardware stores.

But that leads to the question my next guest has been asking. What is essential? And are cities and states overlooking some communities that may rely heavily on businesses considered non-essential? Solomon Jones is a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and he wrote an op-ed this week called "The Rush To Close Businesses Amid Coronavirus Reeks Of White Privilege." And Solomon Jones is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

SOLOMON JONES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, you say that you do agree with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's order to close businesses to prevent the spread of this virus. You say the decision was necessary. So explain why you also think it - as you put in your piece, it kind of reeks of white privilege.

JONES: Well, I think that when you start from a place where you have never really been in a place of emergency, where every dollar counts, where if you miss one week of pay or if you miss one week of business, you're financially ruined. I think if you've never been in that place, it's hard to understand what happens in black and brown communities. Our businesses, if you close them for one week, for two weeks, those businesses might never come back because they've started at a deficit in the first place.

MARTIN: That sort of begs the question of, what should they do? I mean, let's say that a lot of the small businesses in a lot of communities that people are familiar with offer personal services, right? They are barbershops. They are salons. You can't achieve social distancing when you're offering that kind of personal service. So what, then, you know, is the alternative?

JONES: I think the alternative is that when you say your business must shut down, and you know that you have a quarter of your citizens living in poverty, you have to have something from the very beginning to help them. When you said shut down, OK. Here is the money that you are going to need in order to survive on the other side of this. You can't pick the winners and losers from the beginning because to your point, as you know, that nail service is not essential. Well, it's essential for that person that's doing it. Every job in my view is essential.

MARTIN: So you wrote your column before the president signed the - this third stimulus package, which sets aside $10 million in federal grant money for minority-owned businesses.

JONES: Yeah.

MARTIN: What do you make of that?

JONES: Well, I think we'll see. One of the questions that we have - and literally, we just asked this in our household today. My daughter is 18. She has a little job, but she's still a dependent for us. So the legislation says that people under 17 who are dependents will get a $1,200 check, and then a family will get a $500 check for each child who's under 17. Well, my daughter's 18, but she's still a dependent. What happens with her? We don't know.

And so I think that it just points to the fact that we don't really know how this thing is going to turn out until the checks begin to come out, and we don't know when that's going to happen.

MARTIN: It's interesting. I'm looking at a map that The Washington Post put together that shows differences in what different cities are considering essential. For example, in Chicago, Denver and San Francisco, marijuana dispensaries are considered essential. In Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco, bike shops are considered essential and have been...

JONES: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Exempted from closing. And it says here that Chicago includes gun shops. And I'm just wondering, what do you make of that?

JONES: Well, it's funny you should ask that question because that's one of the questions that I asked of our mayor's office. Who's deciding what's essential? Who's making that decision, and what is that decision based on? You know, in the black community, a barber shop, I would argue, is essential.

Now, how do you maintain social distancing? I don't know. But I do know that it's a place where we are sharing information. I do know that it's a place where news gets out and gets chopped up in such a way that our folks can understand it. If you are not from our community, and you're not in the room when you're deciding what's essential and what's not, then you can't make that fair decision.

MARTIN: Solomon Jones is a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer and a radio host. We reached him in Philadelphia.

Solomon Jones, thanks so much for talking to us.

JONES: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMU THE FUDGEMUNK'S "LEO PART 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.