EDITORIAL: Where is the relief?

YOU DON’T NEED an economist to tell you the effect the pandemic is having on local business. Or maybe you do, depending on your business.

Some local restaurants look busy. People sitting outside mostly. Is it a sign of hope or a social distancing illusion?

People in the real estate business say the market is hot. They point to high-end home sales—folks moving up here to get away from New York City. Is it a bubble, a fantasy or a trend?

The two photos on our front page this issue show the Columbia County Fair as it was in 2018 and what the empty fairgrounds looked like this week. Newcomers to the county may lack a context for this. For longer-term residents the fair, which would have wrapped up Monday, was a kind of timepiece marking the end of summer. Depending on the weather, 25,000 or so folks by one estimate would have passed through the gates during the six-day event.

People value or avoid different aspects of the fair, like the demolition derby or the deafening tractor pulls. Kids love the rides and livestock, fried food, the live music, the midway too. But there’s no measurement that captures the fair’s spillover economic impact. The carnies pack up and move on when there is a fair (there has been one for the last 179 years), and some nearby merchants complain that local business slumps while the fair is open.

The photos tell their own story. They show both what the event has been and the scope of what was lost this year. And that loss is echoed in the cancellation of all sorts of smaller local events throughout the county. Don’t look at it sentimentally. Instead, consider the fair and other events as signals about the extent of the economic and social disruptions brought on by Covid-19.

That’s especially true of the fair’s other annual significance: it marks the opening of public schools. This year that process has been accompanied by word from Governor Cuomo that the state has a $14.5- billion budget shortfall. The governor and the legislature agreed earlier this year that up to 20% of school funding could be withheld from districts.

Local school districts believe they have the reserve funds to absorb the lost aid without deep program cuts or large increases in property taxes… or both. But soon those funds will be drained if the state does not receive help from the federal government.

Democrats in the House of Representatives have adopted a $3-trillion funding bill that includes aid to all states facing budget gaps caused by the pandemic. This week, after weeks of inaction, Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) offered a Senate bill for a fraction of that amount. It’s not enough to provide real relief and it’s unclear whether GOP Senators or the administration would support it.

But if it’s a genuine offer of compromise, maybe it’s time for Democrats to call the GOP’s bluff, to compromise and let the GOP justify the consequences. After all, President Herbert Hoover backed weak measures that brought little relief at the beginning of the Great Depression. What resulted was FDR’s New Deal. Is there a better strategy?

The fairgrounds are normally empty by this date. Now, plans are being made for next year’s fair. We can hope that Covid-19 will be under control by then and that families can attend the 2021 fair because they have living-wage jobs and enough left over for a day of fun.

This year was a break with a tradition of nearly two centuries. It has been more destructive that we know and it will take a huge investment to repair the damage. If ever there was a time for the federal government to spend on making our states whole again, this is it. The clue for us is the fate of the fair.

Correction

Last week’s editorial on absentee ballots (“Mail your ballot” September 3) did not make it clear that while voters can request an absentee ballot by email, the physical ballot must be mailed or delivered to the Columbia County Board of Elections at 401 State Street, Hudson, NY 12534.

If you need help, call the Board of Elections, 518-828-3115.

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