Jason Isbell’s Twitter account is one of the reasons I could find myself returning to the platform (update: turns out I did open a new Twitter account amid the pandemic); I’m ashamed to say I probably appreciate his tweets more than his music (which is no knock on his music). Then again, I don’t know a lot of his music. I don’t have much of a history with John Prine’s music, either. When I first moved to Nashville I met someone who worked at Prine’s Oh Boy Records, and was given a stack of the man’s CDs. I promptly sold them Amazon; partially because I needed the money more than I needed the CDs, but also because I didn’t immediately understand the appeal. Fast forward nearly a decade to when a friend of mine invited me to join him to ring in 2019 at the Opry with a performance by Prine and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. We left shortly after saying goodbye to 2018. Besides “Pretty Good,” I still don’t know much of the man’s music. I appreciate why he’s revered. Maybe I’ll get there someday. What I can say is that I value and appreciate the most important piece of relationship advice he gave Isbell before he passed: “Stay vulnerable.”
Fortunately, to this point, I don’t know anyone who’s been symptomatic of the virus—no illnesses attributed to it, no hospitalizations. Hopefully that continues. Most of my friends and family have been able to self-quarantine and work remotely from home, but several friends have had hours cut or been furloughed. If only by association, the financial uncertainty of our current situation is where this feels the heaviest right now.
Looking around the city and state, I don’t think I’m fully able to grasp the weight of what’s happening. Essential businesses are running huge risks, as was just discovered at the Goodlettsville Tyson Foods plant where 90 employees have tested positive (60 of whom live here in Davidson County). United Record Pressing has furloughed 120 employees. Between its plants in Smyrna and down south in Decherd, Nissan has furloughed roughly 9,000 employees (though some have been re-utilized to make personal protective equipment). A quarter of a million Tennesseans have filed for unemployment over the past three weeks (typically the state sees 10,000 applications in that timeframe).
I’ve been watching the TN Department of Health’s dedicated COVID-19 page evolve over the past several weeks. They’ve done a good job adding granularity to data as it becomes available, shifting from a rather rudimentary tally roughly a month ago to the more elaborate page that exists today. Much has been made about critical factors that might potentially impact the likelihood of recovery from the virus (smoking habits, obesity, blood type), but one significant trend stands out right now: From the recorded data, 59% of the COVID-19 related deaths in Tennessee are accounted for by people 71+ years old. As of April 18, 2020 the overall death rate stands at 2.1% and the percent of individuals who’ve recovered is 47.8%. But in that 71+ range, the death rate is 13.8%. Even drawing the line at 51+, the death rate only falls to 8.3%.
The state’s hospitals seem to be standing strong in the face of all this, despite struggling through the same equipment shortages that have plagued the rest of the nation. “As of Friday [April 17] afternoon,” notes the Tennessean, “35% of Tennessee’s hospital beds (4,354 of 12,321) are available, according to a daily report from the Tennessee Department of Health. The state has 32% of its ICU beds open (625 of 1,946), and 75% of ventilators 1,538 of 2,045) are available.” Reporting for Mother Jones, Sinduja Rangarajan writes, “Tennessee has such an acute shortage of medical supplies and protective gear that the governor asked healthcare workers to repurpose swim goggles and diapers into masks. The state is looking to convert college dormitories, convention centers, and hotels into makeshift hospitals.” The Mother Jones article goes on to parallel some predictive models which anticipate Tennessee running short on hospital beds within the next 10 days. It’s worth noting that there’s a discrepancy as to how many beds are truly available, which could greatly impact this picture. The Nashville Scene’s Stephen Elliott notes there may only be roughly 8,000 beds available statewide, when excluding “the added beds planned for auxiliary facilities like the Music City Center in Nashville.” Either way, at this point, hospitals would have to see a hell of a surge before May to reach maximum capacity.
I’m still concerned. I don’t know what the right answer here is—no one does—but the drive to begin re-opening the city’s businesses next month seems like a tough call to make. Maybe it’s the right call, attempting to bring a source of income back for so many who desperately need it right now, but it could also delivery the exact conditions for a surge in COVID-19 cases to spike.
The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a paper, “How Are Small Businesses Adjusting to COVID-19? Early Evidence from a Survey,” which outlines why a return to “normal” business conditions are being so heavily weighed right now. Gathering results from interviews with nearly 6,000 small business owners across the country, the report outlines trends that are well in line with the earlier mentioned unemployment reports: Small businesses, which employ roughly half of the American workforce, are hurting and if a shut-down continues, many are likely to go out of business. Summarizing a few key points: “41.4 percent of businesses reported that they were temporarily closed because of COVID-19”; and “1.8 percent [already] reported that they were permanently closed because of the pandemic. It’s interesting to learn that the CARES program notes that “‘loans that will be fully forgiven when used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities,’ as long as 75 percent of the forgiven amount is spent on payroll and the employer either maintains or quickly rehires workers and maintains salary levels.” Given this, over a quarter of respondents still confirmed they wouldn’t bite when it comes to this sort of loan. Some don’t need the cash (“one-tenth of our sample truly feels confident with their financial security”) while others (35%) don’t think they’d qualify, or that they didn’t trust the government to forgive the load (20%), or that it’d just be too much of a hassle (~10%).
Here’s where the clash between economic and health policies really takes hold though: “When firms are told to expect a six-month crisis, the average expectation of remaining open falls to 38 percent. […] The restaurant industry seems particularly vulnerable to a long crisis. Restaurateurs believe that they have a 72 percent chance of survival if the crisis lasts one month, but if the crisis lasts four months, then they give themselves only a 30 percent chance of survival. If the crisis lasts for six months, then they expect to survive with only a 15 percent probability.”
This leaves a conflicting feeling when reading about which sectors of the economy are being protected (Tennessee airports are receiving $124 million as part of the CARES Act), while others suffer. This market seems to work best for those who define its rules: “Rugged individualism and capitalism on the way up, privatizing the gains—and then socialism/cronyism on the way down as we socialize the losses with bailouts.”