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Milwaukee small business owners experience financial hardships from slow federal response to COVID-19

As Wisconsinites headed into a holiday weekend with a patchwork of local public health orders and directives, Milwaukee small business owners shared their views about reopening the Badger State and the challenges of navigating the federal government’s economic support during the global pandemic.

It has been almost three months since President Donald Trump told the public that there would soon be zero cases of COVID-19 in the United States. As of May 22 there have been 1,620,000 cases and 96,000 deaths, more deaths than any other country in the world.

President Trump’s chaotic response made the preventable crisis worse, and his failure to act early on has also left 40 million hard working Americans unemployed. It did not have to be this way. As new models project U.S. coronavirus deaths doubling in two months due to the equally disorganized reopening policies, President Trump said he will not close the country again if there was a predicted second wave outbreak.

“The slow response by President Trump to COVID-19 devastated our business,” said Melissa Buchholz, PRAWN executive director, Opportunity Wisconsin steering committee member, and Odd Duck owner. “It forced us into the role of public health official. If the people who have all of the information, all of the warnings, and all of the tools don’t share those it’s pretty hard to be left to make these decisions for yourself, for your livelihood, for your employees and for your guests.”

When asked what she would say to President Trump about his leadership and response during the coronavirus pandemic, Buchholz replied, “We’re working really hard out here. I don’t know how you can ignore so many of us. We’re looking to you for guidance, calm, and stabilization during this time, because that’s what presidents are for.”

Instead of working with Congress to pass the HEROES Act, which would provide additional relief for small business owners and the middle class, President Trump has attempted to ram through a payroll tax cut, which would give wealthy corporations billions of dollars in tax breaks while a single parent earning $25,000 a year would receive just $500.

“Small businesses are the engine of our economy. I understand that large corporations are having difficulties too, but a payroll tax cut isn’t going to address any of our issues as small business owners. It’s not going to help our employees,” said Cameron Roberts, co-owner of LuLu Cafe. “It’s a flagrant insult to working families, the middle class, and people struggling. There’s all this lip service, ‘I’m for working families,’ but everyday you turn around and there’s another obstacle put in their path.”

Opportunity Wisconsin, a coalition of Wisconsin residents fighting for an economy that works for working people, recently sent a letter to Congressional leaders demanding support for working Wisconsinites in the HEROES Act. The letter included a asking for “robust financial assistance for small businesses across the state struggling to make ends meet, in place of the mismanaged Paycheck Protection Program, which has failed to actually deliver relief to small businesses.”

Both Buchholz and Roberts expressed frustration with the PPP application and implementation process, with Roberts saying, “Even our banks didn’t know how to navigate it.”

On May 19, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s Senate testimony revealed how much President Trump was putting Wall Street and massive corporations ahead of workers – the backbone of America’s consumer culture. He reiterating that the Trump administration expected workers who do not want to return to work before it was safe to be punished by losing their unemployment benefits.

“There’s a lack of consideration being given to the costs to go to work, such as single-parent families who don’t have childcare because grandma is in a high-risk category,” said Roberts. “It’s so frustrating because it seems like our government refuses to recognize the struggles of actual working people.”

© Photo

Lee Matz

The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following months, we have published more than 450 articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
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