By Robert Whittle, Chairman and CEO at Williams Whittle

“Everyone’s got a plan. Until you hit ‘em in the mouth.”—Mike Tyson

It was going so well, wasn’t it? The economy was humming along, the stock market was hitting new highs seemingly every week. Clients were spending; bonuses were being earned and awarded. Then…then, what? An insidious virus began ever so slowly, then steadily, then rampantly to take root in America, bringing the world’s best economy to its knees.

Like many, I compared it to a recession at first. But I thought there would be a significant difference. I thought that, unlike a recession, the after effects would dissipate quickly. OK, one day there’d be no more virus—open the doors, let the customers in. They’re retail deprived; they want to congregate in bars and restaurants. They want to spend.

We now know that that is a false scenario. People are afraid and are likely to remain so through the foreseeable future. Our clients are looking ahead to 2021 and some are already seeing reduced budgets. What about pent-up demand? Some are not feeling it, and, instead, are bracing for a long-term slow walk. My daughter is an administrator at a boarding school and they are preparing for scenarios that include a late start to the fall—or a no start to the fall. Oh Lord!

Depressed yet? Let’s look at the bright side. I can’t ever remember taking any kind of government hand out. But, like millions of others, Williams Whittle jumped all over the PPP grant program. Turns out free money is really popular. I hardly know a small business that didn’t apply. And if you got in on the early side, you got your money. Not to mention the second round which is now underway. I, for one, applaud this program. Despite its glitches, I believe it is elegantly designed and will save the government money in the long run. Despite the horrifying unemployment numbers, think how much worse it would be without this grant money. We employers must prove that the money was spent largely on payroll and rent. Did it save jobs and preserve salaries in my company? You bet it did. Even my landlord benefits as he won’t see me coming to renegotiate my lease.

What if there is pent-up demand in retail, travel and dining, to name just three categories? What if the new abnormal means braving (probably) smaller crowds to buy, dine and mingle, albeit with face masks, gloves and sanitizer at the ready. What if, by mid-summer, consumer habits are at least semi-normal. Of course, some consumer habits have no doubt changed forever. Online shopping has only increased and will continue that pattern. Who knows what further programs the government may have in store?

In the end, color me semi-optimistic. No, I don’t think things in our economy or culture will ever be the same as pre-Covid. I don’t see shaking hands or cheek pecking or hugging in our future. I don’t know about Macy’s or Neiman Marcus or other big box operations. We’ve been hit in the mouth and our grand plan has changed. But I do know that Americans love to consume and that slowly, surely, we will find a way to get back.

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