When I chaired the House of Representatives Small Business Committee, we in Congress had to deal with the Katrina and 9/11 crises for grants and loans for both small businesses and people’s homes. We worked with President Bush and the Senate to identify and change laws and regulations to rebuild small businesses and homes in New Orleans and to protect and rebuild businesses and to restart the American economy when we were attacked by the terrorists on 9/11.


Today’s attack on America by COVID–19 has no parallels to America’s responses in the past, as the virus’ spread and impact across our country changes daily. Agriculture, manufacturing, supply chains, hospitals, retail stores, personal service sectors -- nearly every sector of the American economy -- are not just being severely impacted, but many are hemorrhaging, some irreparably, and are facing bankruptcy unless action is taken immediately.


The total amount of wages and salaries (income) each year in the U.S. is nearly ten trillion dollars (out of a $20 trillion economy). We know for sure that the $750 billion in the new government Payment Protection Program will never be enough to cover incomes eliminated by closed businesses and those with greatly diminished or no demand.


Plus, only a very small percentage of the Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) applications has been approved because, as loans and not grants, applicants have to meet repayment and underwriting standards. Relying on too much government emergency spending could bring the double punch of hyperinflation and dramatic tax increases, which will damage and extend our wounded economy even more.


Thus, while leaders on all levels recognize the need to protect the health of the American people, they also realize America’s economy, which is driven largely by consumer and business spending, must be restarted. Illinois, from the first restrictions imposed on March 17, 2020, wisely listed most manufacturing and construction as “essential,” as opposed to states such as New York and Pennsylvania being more restrictive in those areas of the economy.


These Illinois leaders, notwithstanding their good intentions and efforts, are hampered by “essential” and “non-essential” definitions, which have caused confusion, unfairness and collapsing businesses.


For example, garden centers and nurseries were originally considered essential, then non-essential (ordered closed) and now essential. Vitamin shops have always been deemed non-essential, while liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries have always been essential. Adding to the angst is that Walmart and other big box stores are allowed to sell everything, while smaller retailers selling the same product are ordered closed, or in some cases, limited to curb side service, delivery or mail order.


To Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara’s and Loves Park Mayor Greg Jury’s (and many other local mayors’) thoughtful and creative approaches on opening up the economy, I would add flexibility to the “essential” standard to consider those sectors which are presently called “non-essential”: That expanded standard would be “Openable and Safe,” which would avoid the subjectivity and innate unfairness of defining “essential” as to many sectors, and which could be implemented immediately. (The Governor, working with medical providers, is already expanding elective surgeries and procedures to give relief to the health sector.)


Men’s stores, ladies’ dress shops, shoe stores, furniture stores, book stores, computer and appliance stores, business supply stores, craft stores, personal service businesses, etc. in many cases could reopen if the sellers and consumers followed CDC guidelines in wearing masks and practicing social distancing, saving jobs and greatly enhancing sales tax revenue, which is the only source of income for many local governments.


This expanded standard, of course, would be liberalized as the safety of Americans is improved to allow reopening of other businesses and operations, such as restaurants, theaters, churches, sports, and other large events.


Making reopening standards more flexible won’t solve all the problems to restart the economy, but it definitely will help.


Don Manzullo served as a U.S. representative for Illinois's 16th congressional district, from 1993 to 2013.