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Fix the pandemic and get the economy going, our panelists tell President Biden

If there’s one thing President Joe Biden can do in his first 100 days to help the nation’s economy it’s this: get the COVID-19 pandemic under control. That’s the consensus of three panelists who participated in the “Business Impact: First 100 Days” webinar hosted by Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.

Dr. Lynette Chappell Williams, vice president and chief diversity officer for Penn State Health; Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry; and Andrew Desiderio, Certified Public Accountant and shareholder at Bethlehem-based Concannon Miller, agreed the pandemic, which has put millions out of work, caused the closure of many businesses and shattered supply chains, is the biggest threat to the economy.

But, amid the many challenges surrounding the delivery of the vaccine, convincing a large and wary portion of the public to take it may be the most daunting task.

“The best thing we can do is educate people so that they can make an informed decision,” said Chappell Williams. “It’s important to get the word out to minorities that the vaccine was tested on a diverse group, and that the data shows that the vaccine is safe for all races and genders.”

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” agreed Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. While businesses can’t force employees to get the vaccine, they should encourage it with education and incentives, such giving out gift cards to those who get vaccinated.

When asked what infrastructure improvements would benefit the nation’s economy, the answer was making high-speed internet available to everyone.

“We have a desperate need for more information infrastructure,” chamber president Barr said, who would like to see 5G access across Pennsylvania.

Chappell Williams noted that internet and transportation are needed.

“How do we get the vaccine to people without internet and to those with transportation issues?” she asked. Williams said that issues like these are a priority for minorities who face high rates of COVID-19 infection.

Biden’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 raised concerns. Such a move would put a lot of pressure on small businesses, who are barely making ends meet, said Desiderio, of Concannon Miller.

Desiderio, who works with small business owners, said a mandated $15-an-hour minimum wage would hurt, but coming in the middle of a pandemic would be devastating.

“The timing right now is not ideal,” said Barr.

Additional payroll costs might break small business owners who are still not recovered from the financial losses of the pandemic, he said.

Also during the webinar, the panelists discussed the importance of cultivating a diverse workforce. Diversity does not just mean racial diversity, they said, but age, gender and cultural diversity as well.

Studies show that companies with a diverse workforce and leadership have better productivity and financial outcomes, said Chappell-Williams. Part of the reason for that, she said, is because diversity brings different ways of looking at things.

“It shifts you out of the mindset that ‘This is how we’ve always done things…,’” she said. “That’s how you drive innovation.”

Chappell-Williams added later that being open to diversity can help remedy supply chain shortages for business during the pandemic as well.

“Look beyond your traditional supply chains,” she said, advising companies look at women-owned and minority-owned businesses as options. “See who else is out there that can help.”

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