Dawg Gone Good BBQ sits empty in Athens, Ga. on Friday Sept. 4, 2020. The restaurant has two "Open" signs out on a sunny afternoon. (Photo/Alex Miller)

How Economic Issues Are Taking Forefront For Athens Businesses During Election 2020

Athens’ local economy, like most of the world’s, has faltered and dipped since March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But that does not mean everyone has been affected equally. After businesses were forced to shut down, and a statewide shelter-in-place mandate went into effect temporarily on April 2, not every sector bounced back. That may impact how people plan to vote in the 2020 Election.

According to a Pew Research poll in August, 79% of Americans believe the economy is a “very important” political issue. It is the most common one, and one that supporters of President Donald Trump view as more important than supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden. Eighty-eight percent of Trump supporters see the economy as “very important,” while 72% of Biden supporters do.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: The Athens-Clarke County community includes a diverse workforce, both vocationally and ethnically. These accounts will resonate with a portion of the community and prompt action. 

 

David Bradley, president and CEO of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, said there is a large variation of how hard certain sectors of the Athens economy were hit. He said the Chamber has been working on a financial analysis and found that restaurants, retail and hospitality were hurt especially hard. They also found that attorneys, accountants and manufacturers fared well through the last six months.

He said economic confidence wanes every election cycle, but this one is different.

“The wheels of progress in the business community roll most effectively when there’s confidence about tomorrow, next month, next six months, next year,” Bradley said. “When you throw the pandemic and racial anxiety into a very heated and very divided presidential campaign, it’s a recipe for hard times.”

Hard Times for Local Business

Derek Vandiver, a manager at a Ross in Athens, agreed that retail has been worse off than many other sectors in Athens, and there are specific challenges that come with low-income workers.

“We have 50-plus employees here so anytime someone calls out with a cold or comes in sick, we have to adjust on the fly in terms of getting crews here… [it is] not just from a safety perspective; we have to keep them off the payroll,” Vandiver said. “It is an inconvenience for these guys working paycheck to paycheck.” 

Vandiver highlighted that employees typically miss up to two weeks once they call out sick. 

Vandiver also said the pandemic does not change how he planned to vote in the presidential election.

“In terms of not having procedures in the first place, that goes back to not even this administration, or the one before that. It’s something that happened that kind of woke us up,” Vandiver said. “It’s the same sort of thing as 9/11. I don’t blame that administration for that happening at the time, but it kind of woke us up to, ‘hey there’s this real danger.’”

Michael Crain, who heads the Crain Law Group in Athens, agreed that the pandemic does not affect how he previously felt about the two parties.

“I don’t know whether, if this pandemic happened or not, I would have changed how I planned to vote in this election cycle,” Crain said. “I know of nobody who has switched parties because of the pandemic, it has just made people anchor into their stances even deeper.”

Other current events, specifically protests and riots, have altered how Crain has prioritized certain political issues.

“I have lawyer friends in Portland, Oregon, and you have people literally burning down downtown Portland. The federal courthouse was literally set afire with people inside the building, and that’s not normal,” Crain said. “Our society can’t put up with things like that, in my opinion, and it doesn’t seem to be a big issue to some people, and that’s shocking to me.”

Local Businesses Look Ahead

Vandiver and Bradley, however, stressed the importance of health and safety issues heading into the election. Vandiver said he is uncertain of how the Christmas season will go, and he expects far fewer sales than normal.

Bradley said the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce is the “voice of business” in Athens. But, even it has fallen on hard times.

“[Our members] are going to pay their light bill before they pay their member bill,” Bradley said. “But for attorneys and accountants, and manufacturers, ‘Am I going to have a job tomorrow?’ is not at the top of mind.”

This has been the case for Crain, who said he felt lucky to have a diverse enough clientele that his work has not slowed at all, but he said that is not the case with all attorneys.

“The ones that have been affected the most are litigation firms. Most courthouses completely shut down from doing jury trials,” Crain said. “The litigation practice in general is very backlogged.”

I don’t know anybody that sees a light at the end of the tunnel,” Crain said.

But on issues like health and safety and racial inequity — which Bradley, Vandiver and Crain all mentioned as keynote issues — the lean toward either candidate is split. In fact, only about a third of Trump supporters — 39 percent — view the coronavirus pandemic as a “very important” issue. 

The economy overshadows all other measured issues on perceived importance, but people are jumping ship to the other side.

What it Means for the Election

“The biggest thing I see when it comes to this election is there’s a lot of animosity. Both sides are trying to demonize each other and point blame. It’s a very stressful election because both parties are angry at each other. I think it’s been that way the last two elections,” Vandiver said. “Not much has changed.”

Bradley said he thinks the economy will play a large role in how everyone votes. According to the Pew Research data, it will easily be the largest factor, but that does not necessarily mean he is planning for improved morale within any Chamber of Commerce.

“If [chambers of commerce] don’t get some serious funding, they’re going to get cut, but the need for their services is at an all-time peak. It’s a real dichotomy,” Bradley said. 

All three mentioned that they do not see the economy getting better any time soon, regardless of who gets elected, but they still see it as a vital political issue.

Bradley is looking forward to the campaigns and election ending. He said he is eyeing the Friday after Election Day.

I will be grateful when November the 6th comes around,” Bradley said.

Alex Miller is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

 

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