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The coronavirus has impacted every Utahn, but who has been hit the hardest?
From a health point of view, the answer is clear and consistent: the elderly and those with preexisting conditions are most likely to be killed, while the middle-aged are the largest group in the hospital. People in urban areas like Salt Lake County — which has over half of Utah’s coronavirus cases — are more likely to catch it than those in rural areas, but in the rural communities in which it does spread, it can be particularly damaging.
As Robert Gehrke pointed out in a May column, there’s a reason “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is in that order: that first one is the highest priority. But that pursuit of happiness part is critical to the whole operation too, and so it’s important that we understand just how the virus has impacted that part of things as well. In particular, I want to talk about the economy.
It generally takes longer for economic data to come out than health data, but we are getting a better idea of who was most economically impacted as a result of the pandemic. Let’s break it down.
How did the virus affect Utah industries?
I’m going to start by looking at the economy by sector, because that’s going to explain a lot of the other trends we see. Different Utahns work different types of jobs, after all.
As you know, Utah collects sales tax. It takes a while for the data to be collected and released, but this month, the state of Utah released the gross sales for the month of April. Remember, in April, the state of Utah was in the “red” coronavirus risk phase, which meant many businesses were closed, people largely stayed home, and things were just generally very unusual.
Despite all that, Utah recorded a 2.5% increase in gross taxable sales from April 2019 to April 2020.
That shocked me. But it’s true. Many businesses saw huge decreases in sales, but many saw huge increases in sales too. Here’s the breakdown:
OK, that’s a whole lot of industries, so let’s look at the highlights. At the top of the growth chart, you have three big sectors: electronic goods wholesaled, non-store retailers (think online stores), and agriculture, forestry, fishing & hunting (outdoorsy stuff). It makes a lot of sense that we’d see big growth in these areas. We also saw jumps in construction, in both stores like Home Depot and big business suppliers.
Sales went up in grocery stores, but it was counteracted by a larger decline in restaurant sales. People bought way less furniture, clothing, and couldn’t go out to arts, entertainment, or other recreational places. Transportation went down, as did real estate. And special event sales went to near-zero levels.
Of course, sales taxes don’t track every transaction, some things are not taxed. So another way to look at this is through unemployment counts. Here’s that chart:
Unsurprisingly, restaurants and hotels let go of the highest percentage of their workers; about 20% of their total workforce filed an unemployment claim. Even though retail sales went up 11%, that sector still saw a 12% unemployment rate. That makes some sense, though: retail industries that were hurt couldn’t just transfer their employees to grocery stores. Meanwhile, financial services, management companies, and outdoor industries saw less unemployment.
Less is relative, though. Take that “agriculture, forestry, fishing & hunting” category that saw huge jumps in sales and was one of the least-unemployed industries. It still saw unemployment numbers that were three times higher than in the same period last year. For the hard-hit restaurant and hotel industry, employment claims were 11 times higher this year than last.
In Utah, which age, gender, and race were most affected?
Because industries worked by young Utahns were disproportionally impacted, their employment was as well. To see this, here’s how ongoing Utah unemployment claims were distributed by the age of the worker, compared to how employment is usually distributed in Utah:
As you can see, Utahns of all ages were laid off during the pandemic. But it was younger workers, those 22 to 34 years old, who got the biggest share of the layoffs.
I find it fascinating that female workers were laid off more than their male counterparts, as we’ve covered in The Tribune. Females account for 53% of continuing unemployment claims in April and May, while usually they only make up 44% of the workforce.
In terms of race and ethnicity, we do not see the same racial differences in the economic data that we do in the health data. Remember, fully 42% of Utah’s coronavirus cases are Hispanic, despite being only 14% of Utah’s population. But Hispanics are still being asked to work: only 13.2% of Utah’s unemployment claims were in that demographic category.
While the unemployment graph largely follows demographic trends, minority groups like Asians, American Indians, Blacks, and Pacific Islanders saw more unemployment claims proportionally than their share of the population.
Which counties had the greatest unemployment?
The disproportionate way this crisis has hit industries, as well as the various hotspots, also meant each county had differing levels of unemployment. Just like with our industries, we can break it down by taxable sales and then by unemployment.
Taxable sales varied widely by county: some saw 60% drop offs, while others saw 40% gains.
That Grand County decline hurts: a 60% decline in sales? Wow. Closing restaurants and hotels in Moab was a big deal. Other rural Utah counties did much better, and even saw large gains. Suburban counties like Utah County and Davis County did too, while Salt Lake County saw 3% losses.
Here’s the unemployment picture:
Some counties saw as little as 5% unemployment, while others saw a quarter of the workforce chopped off. Grand County saw 24% unemployment, which actually feels remarkably positive given a 60% decline in sales. Again, smaller counties like Beaver, Rich, and Millard did much better, thanks to limited viral spread in those places and less economic-dependent industries. Salt Lake County was in the middle of the pack at 11%, as you might expect given the diversity of businesses in Utah’s largest county.
Of course, we should note that spending and unemployment aren’t the only ways to measure an economy. A May survey by Salt Lake County found that 40% of residents reported that the pandemic had had a negative impact on their financial well-being. And while the smaller counties don’t have research firms, I’m not sure a majority of residents in those places would say they’ve been positively affected by the pandemic financially.
There’s a false dichotomy that’s popular in politics right now: do we choose to support public health measures, or do we support the economy? Of course, that ignores the central truth, that places with worse coronavirus outbreaks have larger economic declines. The two go hand in hand, and ignoring the outbreak just means more economic problems for longer. Likewise, a failing economy can’t afford to heal its citizens in a global market.
But I think the above data sheds some light on the cause of some of the political fighting between Utahns anyway. Those individuals who were most likely to be affected by the coronavirus from a health point of view weren’t necessarily the ones most likely to be financially impacted. The groups are pretty different, in fact. Economically, it’s predominantly younger people, more often than not women, working customer service-type jobs. In terms of health, it’s older people, predominantly men in urban areas, who have been hit by the virus.
That meant many Utahns were making financial sacrifices for an invisible microbe they were less likely to be personally hurt by. On the other hand, high-risk individuals and those who love them couldn’t understand how individuals weren’t willing to make financial sacrifices to save real human lives.
That’s where, ideally, a strong community comes into play: community drives empathy. Wearing a mask or skipping an indoor restaurant visit is an empathetic act. So too is helping a neighbor who lost a job, or needs financial support. If we were ever in need of a little community, now is the time.
Andy Larsen is a Salt Lake Tribune sports reporter who covers the Utah Jazz. During this crisis, he has been assigned to dig into the numbers surrounding the coronavirus. You can reach Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @andyblarsen.