Commentary

In-N-Out Burger’s not to blame. Federal inaction on COVID relief is.

It’s not too late for leaders in Washington to act before year’s end

November 25, 2020 2:08 pm

In-N-Out Burger at Safe Kids Day 2017 at Smashbox Studios on April 23, 2017, in Culver City, California. (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Safe Kids Worldwide)

For the past week, if your social media feeds were anything like mine, they were focused on a captivating story. No, not the presidential election and its aftermath, or the surge in coronavirus cases. They were focused on hamburgers.

Yes, In-N-Out Burger finally opened its first Colorado locations last Friday and the reaction was, to put it lightly, intense. Whether driven by boredom or curiosity (or something more metaphyiscal) thousands lined up despite a deadly virus and wait times approaching 12 hours.

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While the scene unfolded, many used it as an opportunity to encourage Coloradans to buy a meal from a local restaurant instead of a big chain. That’s certainly something we should all be able to get behind.

But it left me feeling defensive of folks who were seemingly being shamed just for trying to squeeze a brief bit of pleasure out of a miserable year. For finally getting to try a burger, overhyped or not, that they’ve never been able to get in their own backyard before.

More importantly, it effectively shifted the blame for our current economic situation away from those who actually hold the power to help local restaurants and other small businesses that are hurting right now.

If your favorite local burger joint closes this year or next, it won’t be because of In-N-Out. It won’t even be because state and local officials finally tightened public health measures designed to save lives and stop our hospitals from being overwhelmed by COVID-19. It will be because leaders in Washington, D.C., failed to deliver another round of virus relief.

How do we know? We’ve already seen how the relief passed in March in the CARES Act likely saved the economy. Expanded unemployment, forgivable business loans, rental assistance, increases in Medicaid and food assistance, and direct stimulus payments helped Colorado tremendously.

Direct aid to businesses and workers did more than just help us weather the initial virus wave. Federal stimulus policies also had the indirect effect of increasing tax collections above initially dire projections.

In fact, direct aid to businesses and workers did more than just help us weather the initial virus wave. Federal stimulus policies also had the indirect effect of increasing tax collections above initially dire projections. That influx of money into the economy protected our communities from unnecessary layoffs and cuts to critical public services.

But that money has now run out. The $1,200 stimulus checks are a distant memory. The $600 weekly boost to unemployment benefits ended months ago and the state economy is looking at another shock when Pandemic Unemployment Assistance expires after Christmas.

State and local leaders are doing what they can. Small one-time payments for unemployed workers and the upcoming special legislative session will provide some help.

But Gov. Jared Polis has been quick to point out that Colorado, unlike the federal government, can’t deficit spend. Local leaders simply don’t have the ability to provide large-scale enough relief.

Individual actions are important. People should be ordering takeout from their favorite restaurants, shopping locally for holiday gifts, and wearing masks and avoiding contact with people outside their households. However, these actions alone won’t be enough for our economy to recover.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. Congressional leaders and the Trump administration have all expressed a willingness to work out a deal to provide the relief that’s so desperately needed before the end of the year.

And with the holiday season starting in earnest this week, it would come at a time when families who should be planning joyful holiday celebrations are instead worrying about whether they’ll be able to feed their kids.

The death and economic devastation created by the pandemic have been unimaginable. Thousands of Coloradans have died and hundreds of thousands more have had their lives and livelihoods forever altered. But as bad as it’s been, it will only get worse without more federal relief.

So let’s stop scapegoating folks for wanting a burger. Instead, let’s focus our outrage and disgust squarely at Congress and the president until they do their jobs. Relief at the end of this year will go a long way towards preventing even more hardship in the one ahead.

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Elliot Goldbaum
Elliot Goldbaum

Elliot Goldbaum is the director of strategic communications for the Colorado Fiscal Institute, a nonprofit that provides accessible economic research and advocates for policies that advance equity and widespread prosperity for all Coloradans.

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