As COVID-19 Crashes the Economy, Workers and Business Owners Wonder If Anything Can Save Them From Financial Ruin

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By Alana Semuels March 18, 2020

Sonia Bautista was living paycheck to paycheck in one of the most expensive regions of the country when the coronavirus hit, and her finances went from bad to disastrous. Her employer, the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, a four-star luxury property owned by Marriott, told her that business had slowed and it didn’t need her anymore, just when her husband had his job in a hotel cafeteria cut from five to two days a week. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent,” says Bautista.

Workers and businesses across the country are in similarly dire straits as consumers practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and follow recommendations—and in some cases orders— to stay home. Health officials in several counties in the Bay Area have told residents to “shelter in place” until at least April 7, allowing only businesses that provide “essential” services, like grocery stores and restaurants that do takeout, to stay open. The governors of New Jersey and New York are among those who have ordered the closure of gyms, movie theaters, and casinos, banned gatherings of more than 50 people, and said bars and restaurants could only offer takeout.

Even in places without bans, bars and restaurants are seeing business slow to a halt, hotels and event venues are experiencing massive cancellations, theme parks are shutting down, and airlines are slashing flights. Economists say the sudden stop in spending could strike a bigger blow to the global economy than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, since nobody knows when it will be safe for people to go out again. Compounding the crisis is the impact to the service sector, which weathered downturns in the past as people continued to get their hair cut and eat out. This time, that sector of the U.S. economy has come to a standstill since most of the jobs in it can’t be performed remotely.

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