In a classic case of fiddling while Rome burns, President Trump continues to ignore pleas for a national plan on a COVID-19 response even as the crisis reaches new heights of destruction. High profile CEOs have so far failed to rally their peers to press for action, but Shark Tank investor Kevin O’Leary finally set the tone earlier this week, when he deployed his media platform to make the case for coordinated federal action on COVID-19.
O’Leary does have the advantage of a baked-in bullhorn, through his role in the popular ABC television series Shark Tank, in which contestants compete for seed money to start small businesses (CNBC, which is owned by Comcast through NBCUniversal, syndicates the series).
He also speaks from the perspective of experience as an investor in Shark Tank businesses, many of which have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
O’Leary and CNBC deployed that platform to advantage on Monday. He appeared in the CNBC morning news program Squawk Box, and the CNBC website later wrote up the interview in an online news article.
In the article, O’Leary focused on the patchwork of state and local COVID-19 regulations that has wreaked havoc on small businesses, including restaurants in which he owns a stake.
In particular, O’Leary cited a new round of lockdowns in California. Restaurants have already poured scarce resources into building outdoor dining areas to comply with state- and local-level COVID-19 guidelines, only to see them shut down again.
“My question is very simple: Who decides? Is it at the city level, the state level, the federal level? Tell me what the rules are, so I can make economic decisions on behalf of my employees,” O’Leary said.
“There are no rules,” he continued. “They’re not the same. It’s total chaos out there. It’s obvious that’s the situation, and it’s totally unfair.”
Though O’Leary’s focus was on the plight of small business owners, that “no rules” comment applies equally to rules that should be intended to protect workers from abuse.
Chief among those rules is wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing. That sounds simple enough, but instead, the president, his allies, and members of his administration have crisscrossed the country to hold events without masks or adhering to social distancing guidelines. The result is that ordinary public-facing workers are experiencing abuse and violence simply for following basic public health guidelines.
In the same interview, O’Leary also advocated for federal COVID-19 relief funding to go directly to workers rather than to employers.
The argument in favor of direct relief to individuals also echoes O’Leary’s own experience. At the beginning of the outbreak he encouraged the businesses under his investment umbrella to apply for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, but he soon realized that many of them would go under despite the assistance.
O’Leary’s cynical take on the Paycheck Protection Program was borne out last week, when the Small Business Administration finally released data on PPP loan beneficiaries. The data revealed an apparent pattern of self-dealing on the part of the Trump family in addition to other issues that may have shifted funds away from small businesses and failed to achieve the program’s intended purpose of preserving jobs.
NBC was one of 11 news organizations that sued for release of the data. The network reported troubling patterns of abuse in a federal program that was supposed to help small businesses keep workers on their payroll during the worst of the crisis (as with CNBC, NBC is a Comcast entity).
Among the findings reported by NBC, 25 loans totaling more than $3.65 million went to businesses that paid rent to properties owned by Trump and his son-in-law (and high-level advisor to the president) Jared Kushner.
“Fifteen of the businesses self-reported that they only kept one job, zero jobs or did not report a number at all,” NBC noted.
In one of the most apparently egregious examples, a loan of $2,164,543 loan went to the Triomphe Restaurant Corp., located at the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York City.
“The company reported the money didn’t go to keeping any jobs. It later closed,” NBC reported.
Other news organizations found similar issues. The Washington Post, for example, reported that more than half of the loans went to bigger businesses. Albuquerque Business First highlighted several PPP loan success stories in New Mexico, but the news organization also noted substantial issues and information gaps in the data set. For example, the available data indicated that more than 15 percent of approved loans showed no indication that the loan would save any jobs.
Republicans members of Congress have dithered over a second round of relief for months, sheltered by the refusal of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring bills to the floor.
Even if a bill is approved, the damage to existing businesses has already been done. In September, Fortune was among the news organizations reporting that approximately 100,000 “temporary” business closures had become permanent.
On the bright side, many new small businesses have been created during the COVID-19 crisis, but they face a daunting task. The outbreak has only worsened since then, setting new records for infections, hospitalizations and deaths on a regular basis.
With the U.S. healthcare system overwhelmed and mass vaccination not expected until next summer at the earliest, other states aside from California are considering another lockdown in order to preserve beds in intensive care units.
As of press time, the president has still not provided any guidance that could save lives and livelihoods in the coming months, though the First Lady did publicly announce the completion of the new Tennis Pavilion at the White House earlier this week.
The coming months look grim indeed, and the latest reporting on vaccine availability does not bode well for the future.
Earlier this week, The New York Times reported (and the Associated Press confirmed) that the Trump administration failed to exercise a contractual option that would enable the U.S. to purchase 500 million additional vaccine doses from Pfizer, leaving the country with only 100 million doses. With a two-dose regimen, that covers 50 million people in a nation of almost 330 million.
The White House pushed back on that report and denied that the nation would fall short on vaccine supply. However, a red flag was raised on Monday when both Pfizer and another top vaccine contender, Moderna, declined an invitation to appear at a “Vaccine Summit” at the White House scheduled for Tuesday.
Both companies are expected to gain FDA approval for their vaccines this week, but questions about vaccine availability are all but certain to linger for weeks if not months.
Meanwhile, with the notable exception of Kevin O’Leary, business leaders have failed to mobilize their influence to call the president to account for self-dealing, corruption and incompetence, if not sheer maliciousness, on his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Perhaps cracks in the facade are finally beginning to appear. Earlier this week, the Nevada healthcare organization Renown Health drew media attention when it set up a temporary COVID-19 field hospital with a 1,400 bed capacity in a converted garage at its Reno hospital, only to have the president himself tell his millions of Twitter followers that the facility is a “'fake hospital’ and is not treating any patients.”
Anthony Slonim, an MD who is the CEO of Renown, spoke to Becker’s Hospital Review and drew attention to the president’s failure to lead.
“As a public health professional, I know the responsibility I have for prevention, and screening, and preparation is not to wait until I need it," Slonim said. "It's to anticipate. That's called planning. We're supposed to do that as leaders.”
Over and above the possibility of a vaccine availability debacle next year, Trump failed to anticipate and plan for COVID-19 every step of the way. Before the outbreak, he ignored detailed planning documents left to him by the outgoing Obama administration and withdrew CDC staff from China.
After the outbreak was well under way, he withdrew the U.S. from the World Health Organization and failed to help states coordinate a plan for managing a surge in protective equipment and staffing needs. He shuffled responsibility for public health guidelines onto state governors, many of whom promptly passed the buck to county and local jurisdictions. In any case, he and his circle have persistently ignored those guidelines, such as they are.
It is difficult to imagine a more thorough failure of leadership in crisis, unless it is among the business leaders who have a platform for speaking out in public, and yet have failed to do so.
Image credit: Drew Beamer/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.