Richard Connor: As the virus bonfire turned to conflagration, our leaders fiddled

Trump's gut

Some great stories are rising from these ashes. Stories about Americans fighting back and businesses such as liquor distilleries producing disinfectants, restaurants moving from dine-in to takeout and providing food for the poor.

But we are also dying.

On March 26, the United States officially became the country with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the next day became the first country to confirm 100,000 cases of the virus that started in China and quickly escalated into a global pandemic. By April 3 the number of cases in the U.S. had surpassed 239,000 with more than 5,400 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In North Texas and around the state, infections and deaths are increasing by the hour.

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There’s no way of knowing where we would be if our national, state and local leaders had been more prepared, acted sooner, sounded the alarm in a convincing way to a lackadaisical public. But it surely wouldn’t be as bad as it is.

America should be ashamed. We never should have allowed this menace to take root and rage out of control the way it has. Our systems let us down. Government at all levels. Health care systems. Insurance companies.

Even the big grocery chains failed us. When the public finally began to understand the magnitude of the pandemic many people rushed to the stores in an explosion of panic-buying. They grabbed up what they thought to be “essential” items such as toilet paper, paper towels and bottled water, loading up their shopping carts and leaving behind a veritable wasteland of empty shelves. According to some excellent reporting by The Wall Street Journal, the instant product shortages and the failure to restock were the direct result of an industrywide, profit-driven decision in recent years to reduce inventory and limit the supply chain.

That’s business. Then there’s politics.

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The president of the United States is an egomaniacal fool. His early response to the virus threat was to complain about the stunning effect on the stock market, downplaying the threat of the rapidly spreading coronavirus and blaming the media for creating panic on Wall Street.

To his credit he eventually realized that drastic action was needed and joined the push for a stimulus bill – and he wisely abandoned his fantasy of “reopening the country” by Easter after the doctors and health experts he often ignores or contradicts managed to persuade him that federal guidelines on social distancing should be extended until at least the end of April. It was a rare and welcome act of common sense by a president who too often trusts his gut instincts over the advice of people who know what they’re talking about.

Even more distressing than Donald Trump’s lamebrained pronouncements was the mind-boggling delay of legislation to help ease the economic wreckage caused by the virus. While our elected representatives indulged themselves in petty political bickering and ideological grandstanding, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act languished in Congress until March 27, when it finally passed and the president signed it.

The delay in passing the bill was irresponsible, unforgivable and almost certainly lethal, not only to health workers and COVID-19 patients who desperately needed assistance but to small businesses awaiting financial help to preserve jobs and, literally, to stay in business.

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The Business Press, to name one such business, started in mid-March trying to apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan under a U.S. Small Business Administration program that came into play after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide declaration of disaster. But bureaucratic roadblocks made the process impenetrable and it soon became apparent that federal aid of any kind would be virtually impossible to get while Washington debated the CARES Act. The bill’s full name, as it happens, is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act but the acronym is ironic, to say the least. The CARES Act? If the folks in Washington cared about anything except politics, self-promotion and re-election they would have passed it weeks sooner.

Congress dawdled with it as if it were a routine, pork-barrel-laden budget bill – and while it provides much needed relief for those affected by the pandemic, parts of it do have the fragrance of pork. For example: up to $50 billion for passenger airlines and $8 billion for air cargo carriers; $10.5 billion for defense (we’re fighting a disease, not a foreign army!); $93 million for Congress itself to help with “teleworking and other costs;” $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, a pet project of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Kennedy Center, supported in part by the federal government, has total assets of $557 million, according to Forbes; does Congress really think it won’t survive the coronavirus?

The bill also includes a generous tax write-off for the commercial real estate business that The New York Times says will cost taxpayers an estimated $170 billion over 10 years.

Let’s talk about the airlines. They’ve obviously been torpedoed by the pandemic but $50 billion? It’s not clear how much of that money will go to Fort Worth’s longtime pride and joy, American Airlines. No one questions American’s importance to the local economy – its Fort Worth world headquarters alone employs 12,000 people. But airlines, including American, are always among the first in line to get help when times are tough and always seem to emerge not just intact but better off than ever before.

And what is American doing for our community during this crisis? The airline’s CEO Doug Parker is rarely if ever seen in Fort Worth. He is clearly uninvolved and would appear disinterested in Fort Worth life. When Bob Crandall ran American you could find him, get him on the phone. Same with Gerard Arpey and Don Carty. They lived here and a business leader could phone them, ask for community help and get it.

Another major Fort Worth employer, Lockheed Martin, will no doubt benefit handsomely from the big share of the CARES Act allocated for national defense. But at a time when the rest of Fort Worth’s economy is suffering, we’ve heard little from Lockheed.

We appreciate the nearly 30,000 jobs American and Lockheed provide between them. We’d appreciate both companies more if they were more visible in times of need.

The good news for those of us who are clawing to survive? There is hope and other bright spots.

The CARES Act set aside $350 billion for loans to small businesses that are desperately trying to pay their employees and keep them on the payroll. The Business Press, like countless other small businesses, is hoping to get some help but the line is long and the process is difficult.

For those who lose their jobs, the bill includes $260 billion for emergency unemployment benefits and it also includes cash assistance for individuals and families struggling to pay the rent and buy food: a one-time payment of up to $1,200 for adults who earn $75,000 or less and $500 per child.

That will help, but of course it’s not enough. And it definitely didn’t happen soon enough.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at