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U.S. Chamber Of Commerce President On What Business Leaders Are Thinking


It has been a little less than a week since the Paycheck Protection Program ran out of money. The program was designed to help small businesses survive the economic shutdown from the coronavirus. Now it seems another infusion of cash could be on the way. The Senate has approved another emergency funding package. The price tag this time - almost a half-trillion dollars. And the majority of that - more than 320 billion - is for the Paycheck Protection Program.

Well, our next guest is head of an organization that lobbies on behalf of businesses, many of which are waiting for this money. Suzanne Clark is president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of more than 3 million businesses. She joins me now.

Suzanne Clark, welcome.


KELLY: Are you happy with today's deal? As we noted, the first round of this program ran out of money in less than two weeks. Will this be enough?

CLARK: We welcome news of the deal. We're eager to see it enacted. We know that there is just desperate need out there. We hear from CEOs every day, small businesses in real pain. And it makes us think that, yes, we will have to act swiftly for even more funding.

KELLY: An open question - what is the No. 1 concern on the minds of business leaders that you are talking to?

CLARK: I think employers are worried about two things. One is getting through this emergency - both the public health emergency but also the economic emergency. And the other is, how do you prepare to open? When public health officials say they're ready, you get that green light - how are you ready to serve your customers and your employees?

KELLY: Yeah. And there's so many components to that. I mean, I wonder, for example, how you are thinking about the push and pull between wanting to do this responsibly, wanting to sequence this. You know, some business sectors maybe reopen first so it's done in a gradual way. On the other hand, so much is interlinked. And parents, of course, can't return to their jobs until schools are open, until day care is open. It all needs to happen together.

CLARK: It really is complex. You're right. And I think as the chamber looks at a path forward to reopening, it will be gradual. It will be phased in. We know that different communities have been hit in a different way. Different industries will have different requirements. But it's really four things. One, what are the essential services you need, such as child care and transit? Two, what is the equipment and training an employer needs to have in place? Three, what are the regulatory roadblocks or litigation risk they need to be thinking about? And four, it is going to be phases 'cause we know there are industries that rely on high density that'll take longer to get back to normal.

KELLY: Let me ask you to stick to No. 3 for a moment because that's something we have heard less about. This challenge for businesses - if they want employees to come back, they need those employees to be screened, make sure they're healthy. But that risks running afoul of medical privacy rules, of anti-discrimination rules. There are all kinds of liability land mines here on top of everything else that companies are grappling with.

CLARK: That's right. And if you think about this completely unprecedented situation, there's no playbook to take off the shelf and just enact. And we'll all be acting with imperfect information, so it's going to take unprecedented collaboration and communication and trust as we try to do this together and ensure that every American has access to their paycheck.

KELLY: As someone who represents the business community, are you confident the federal government can turn this around, with all the mixed messages on testing and other things?

CLARK: I think it's a multilayered approach, right? You need the federal government for guidelines. You need state and local government for local implementation based on different conditions on the ground. And you need business leaders to talk about what's feasible. And it's going to take that kind of collaboration to deal with this magnitude of a crisis.

KELLY: I have a big-picture question for you, which is - understanding none of us has a crystal ball - what does the landscape for American business and commerce look like five years from now?

CLARK: Well, I'm an optimist, and I believe in the American entrepreneur. So I think we're hopeful. We're hopeful that while this V has been terribly painful for American families, looking like a depression or a recession, we know it ends. And we know it ends, and we leave our house. And so watch for the innovators. Watch for business to reopen quickly. And we hope that the sharp incline on the other side comes quickly.

KELLY: Is there a realistic scenario, though, in which small businesses survive, come back, even are thriving in five years?

CLARK: We hope so. We do worry about entrepreneurs who want to take risk going forward, right? But we believe that the health of an individual and a family go hand in hand with their job prospects. So we want to make sure that there's a path forward to reopening the economy, that we can get to the real pain that's out there. But we believe we can figure this out together. We have to.

KELLY: That is Suzanne Clark. She's president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million businesses here in the United States.

Thank you so much for your time.

CLARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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