By Anna Schlecht

On March 16, 2020, I rolled into Equal Latin with a friend for what was likely the last happy hour for the foreseeable future. Like bars and restaurants across the state, Equal Latin was virtually empty with the owners and staff trying to make sense of the Governor’s order. Their familiar faces were fraught and lined with worry about the uncertainty ahead. 

Like many Olympians, I love supporting local businesses that in turn support our local arts scene and other non-profit organizations. On the windows of most night spots you find event posters, many of which are sponsored by these same local businesses. It’s a circle of support.

People who worked in the food and beverage sector were the first to lose their jobs to the pandemic. These are the folks who have made downtown Olympia the amazing gem that it is. Before the pandemic — or “BP” — our downtown would literally buzz with human electricity, all hosted by bartenders, wait-staff and others, mostly working for minimum wage plus tips. Their lost jobs did not come with life preservers.

One week later, on March 23, the Governor shut down all “non-essential businesses.” While this made complete sense in terms of public health, it meant thousands more local people lost their jobs — real people whose wages offered zero safety cushion for disasters like COVID-19. That included shop clerks, actors, theater employees, musicians and others that make our downtown arts scene a national treasure.

While we don’t know how bad the pandemic will be from a health standpoint, we do know that the longer our unemployed neighbors go without a paycheck or their businesses remain shuttered, the damage to our regional economy becomes exponentially more serious. Last week alone, nearly 182,000 filed for unemployment here in Washington, with a total of 6.6 million people across the nation filed for unemployment, shattering all records.

On March 27, Congress finally passed what is termed the “Stimulus Bill.” As noted by critics, the bill includes hefty bail-outs for large corporations. But the bill also offers $1,200 for tax payers, along with $500 per dependent child (for people with incomes under $75,000). It also includes assistance for small businesses — the kind that make Olympia’s downtown unique.

This assistance will absolutely help, but more is needed. Big band leader Duke Ellington once said, “A problem is a chance for you to do your best.” Locally, many people are rising to the challenge to do their best. On a personal level, younger neighbors are helping older neighbors with shopping. On a community level, a new Facebook page called “Salish Sea Coronavirus News and Research” started coordinating mask-making. At the non-profit level, our United Way marshaled a COVID-19 Response.

During World War II, my mother went to High School by day and worked a swing shift in a Milwaukee factory making radios to support the war effort. I was always proud of the sacrifices she made, especially given that her job soldering radio circuits put her in direct contact with asbestos. She and her sisters also went door to door collecting scrap metal, newspaper and anything else that could be recycled. It was a time of crisis and people pulled together.

This is also a time of crisis. If we love our community, if we love our country, now is the time to pull together. Social media and other news sources will abound with ideas of what we can do.

Soon, the Stimulus Bill payments to each tax payer will go out. Those of us with a steady income will have choices — do we pay off bills, put it in savings, or do we help the folks whose income was shut down by the Governor’s order? I ask you to please consider donating all or some of your check to help our out of work neighbors stay in their homes with food on their table.

We can directly help the people we personally know or go through the United Way’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund. Or we can donate directly to non-profit organizations and faith groups that in turn offer assistance. 

For me, that last call at Equal Latin was a call to action. Individually, we may not be able to do much to find a cure or shore up the economy. But together we can do a lot — help our neighbors, sew masks for emergency/essential workers, and consider donating our Stimulus checks to help people stay afloat. The community you save — the arts, the night spots, the shops, the people — could be your own.