The most apparent hit to the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic is the quick closures of indoor gatherings for restaurants, hotels and other businesses in the hospitality industry, said Randy Zook, CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas. He expects the healthcare industry to be the next sector with major pains.
Zook said when the state began pushing to limit gatherings and practice social distancing, he immediately saw the effects on the hospitality industry.
“I think the most obvious and the most painful is in anything related to hospitality, tourism,. Anything that has to do with restaurants, hotels, transportation, the airline industry, everything that has to do with travel and hospitality and leisure, the casinos, Hot Springs, Eureka Springs; I mean, just all those areas. This is their beginning, their season, and they’re just clobbered,” he said.
Zook said he’s been pleased that the state’s manufacturing sector has mostly held up so far. With a major emphasis on food production, Arkansas has a bit of a buffer in that area.
“Manufacturing is holding up, especially our food processing, knock on wood. Chicken plants, poultry processing plants, food production plants like ConAgra in Russellville and all of the plants are the essential things that they just have to get to the store,” Zook said.
He said Arkansas hospitals are on the cusp of reeling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have shut down elective procedures and many medical visits – the bread and butter of healthcare’s business. Baptist Health and CHI-St. Vincent’s have both announced they are furloughing employees from many divisions that don’t directly transfer to bedside care.
“It really is a paradox, It seems that way, but if you look at it it makes sense. Number one, all elective procedures, all kinds of ‘y’all can wait a while’ sort of decisions about surgeries and treatment are ended. There’s just nobody at the hospitals because everybody thinks that the hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients, which is absolutely wrong. So there are literally layoffs occurring in hospitals,” he said.
Zook said he’s also hearing anecdotally another troubling trend.
“There’s also this crazy thing I learned about yesterday. New York is paying sort of a ‘bounty’ for [healthcare workers] especially RNs and respiratory therapists. You can go to New York as an RN – I almost hesitate to relate this – but in three weeks, they’ll pay you $20,000 a week and then you hole up and quarantine there for two weeks after the three-week stay, and you walk away with $60,000-plus. That’s a year’s earnings for an RN,” Zook said.
“So there are all these perverse outcomes and sort of upside-down things going on. But the bottom line is many of our hospitals in Arkansas are really struggling right now and it needs attention. It will get attention from the feds,” Zook added.
While some are pushing to isolate the U.S. from China, the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak, Zook said he thinks that is short-sighted. He suggests the need to be smarter about returning manufacturing to America, but maintaining the Asian nation as a trading partner.
“We’ve got to be smarter about what and how we buy from China, we just have to. The knee-jerk reaction was let’s just pull back from them and all that,” he said. “We cannot pull back from them. We’ve got to engage long-term with the second-largest economy and maybe, ultimately, the largest economy in the world.”
You can watch more of Zook’s comments – including his thoughts on Congress, infrastructure and workforce – in the video below.