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Economic train wreck: In Maryland and elsewhere, record jobless numbers show why stimulus is needed | COMMENTARY

Visitors are unable to gain access to the Department of Labor due to closures over coronavirus concerns, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in New York. Applications for jobless benefits increased by a record 3.3 million last week, according to the most recent U.S. Labor Department report.
Visitors are unable to gain access to the Department of Labor due to closures over coronavirus concerns, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in New York. Applications for jobless benefits increased by a record 3.3 million last week, according to the most recent U.S. Labor Department report.(John Minchillo/AP)

With an unprecedented 3.3 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits last week, including 41,882 in Maryland, an historic drop, any argument that the nation’s economy isn’t facing a perilous challenge can be dismissed. From Hawaii to Maine and from Western Maryland to Ocean City, the federal jobless numbers simply confirm what most everyone knew: the coronavirus-related layoffs, forced closings, travel restrictions and related actions have caused a massive upheaval — or perhaps more accurately, a sudden but widespread loss of productivity — that has no parallel in our lifetimes. Given the previous one-week national record in unemployment claims was less than 700,000 in 1982, there is simply no comparison.

Maryland wasn’t the worst hit state for the one-week claims jump. California, Washington, Nevada, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania topped the list but it still ranks relatively high. Small wonder that state and federal officials report a backlog in claims processing that could take weeks to overcome. As expected, measured against population, Worcester County took the biggest hit within the state, the result of Ocean City and nearby Atlantic Ocean resort towns essentially shuttered by the outbreak. Tourism clearly suffers when people are stuck at home. But the impact was no less profound for Baltimore County, which had the highest number of new claims among the state’s 24 subdivisions.

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The COVID-19 recession is no longer some theoretical concept. We see the impact on our neighbors and our friends, our relatives, our co-workers, in our places of worship and quite often in our own homes. The abrupt transformation from a robust economy to one in severe retreat is a shocking, if necessary, outcome as much of the world continues to hunker down to help minimize the spread of the disease and the prospect of a health care system in danger of being completely overwhelmed. It’s no exaggeration to recognize that millions of lives are at stake in the United States alone. We have no choice.

That’s why we urge the U.S. Congress to move forward with the stimulus legislation that would provide some level of relief for those most hurt by the downturn and preserve employment opportunities so that the economy can snap back, at least to some degree, when the threat passes. Not everything in the $2 trillion rescue package is to our liking (the $32 billion for the airline industry, for example), but most of it is on target from the $600 added to weekly unemployment benefits for four months to the direct cash payments for individuals and families based on income. Those benefits might make the difference between holding things together for the remainder of the outbreak versus financial ruin. And, of course, everyone benefits as those payments are spent on necessities and help keep the “essential” economy going.

The Senate’s unanimous approval of the legislation on Wednesday demonstrated that even the most partisan in Washington understand the necessity of this action. The House must now follow suit on Friday. President Donald Trump’s endorsement of the bill deserves a nod as well. As does his reluctance to criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats even as they made substantial changes to the provisions his administration initially sought. Such new-found restraint revealed at least a modicum of bipartisanship the president would be wise to maintain — if only because poll numbers suggest the public welcomes the change.

Still, this is unlikely to be the last word on the coronavirus downturn. More unfavorable unemployment reports are undoubtedly on the horizon, and this may not be the last stimulus legislation Congress will need to consider. Even $2 trillion won’t prevent a recession in an economy 10 times that size. And in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan and General Assembly leaders must continue to look for ways to protect jobs and piggyback on rescue efforts coming out of D.C. Expanding unemployment benefits eligibility, as Mr. Hogan and lawmakers did on the final day of the legislative session last week, so that individuals who had to leave their jobs for risk of exposure or to care for a sick relative can receive benefits is a prime example of what is needed. While it’s still too soon to be talking about lifting coronavirus-related restrictions, it’s never too early to look out for each other as we weather this crisis together.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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