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CRA President Rachel Michelin in CalMatters: With coronavirus, California’s economy is in uncharted territory


Social distancing may be good for public health these days, but it isn’t good for the California economy.  As the coronavirus pandemic forces millions of residents to cancel dates and travel plans, retreat from social life to shelter in place, key cogs of the state’s economic engine are grinding to a halt. That’s an unprecedented shock for a modern economy, experts say — one that will test the resilience of California’s decade-long boom and the adequacy of its $18 billion cash reserve. 

What we know so far: The coronavirus is almost certainly causing the first pandemic-induced recession of the postwar era. For millions of Californians and their families, that may mean less work, lower income and more financial stress, particularly for those least able to weather the shock: Californians living at or below the poverty line, those without savings or outside financial support and people living on the street.

What we still don’t know: how bad this will get. Never before in the state has so much business activity come to such an immediate and widespread stop at once, the experts say. Policymakers, businesses and regular Califorians are just beginning to grapple with what this all might look like.

Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, which represents the state’s largest retailers, said consumers shifting to online sales may “might make a dent” in the financial landslide now burying the association’s members — but only a small one.

Even if the shelter-in-place order is lifted, she said, “you have people who aren’t working, consumers who are now wondering, ‘Am I going to have a job?’” she said. “I think people are going to think twice about buying things they don’t necessarily need until we get past this.”

A prolonged economic freeze would be particularly hard for smaller businesses that don’t have the cash reserves to cover overhead like payroll, rent, mortgages and taxes until things improve.

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