Talking Points

The NBA plays while college games cancel. Is this our Omicron future?

Thanks to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the holiday season is playing out a bit differently in the sports world this year. Sometimes games happen; sometimes they don't.

The NBA plugged away at its slate of Christmas games even though a number of teams were missing marquee players due to COVID exposure: Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, and Trae Young were among the All-Stars absent from play. Meanwhile, several lesser college football bowl games — the Military, Fenway, and Hawaii bowls — shut down entirely because the virus had left teams with too few players to play.

Is this our pandemic future?

There's reason to think so. Like the NBA, giant corporations are gutting it out with something less than their usual level of service — U.S. airlines are still operating, for example, though there's a not-insignificant chance your flight might be canceled or postponed because its pilot is at home in quarantine, and your rental car situation might be similarly precarious. And like the bowl games, smaller mom-and-pops are often having to shut down operations, surrendering to self-imposed "soft lockdowns" made necessary by a growing roster of sick workers. (Similarly, a blockbuster like a new Spider-Man movie is doing great despite COVID, while smaller films are having trouble at the box office.) The inequality is obvious.

One way to avoid another season of disaster for small businesses: Revive earlier pandemic-era programs like the Paycheck Protection Act — which stopped giving out money last spring — to help them stay afloat amidst all the turbulence. Politico reports there is already a push in Congress to do just that, especially with the Build Back Better bill hanging in limbo

There are obstacles to this idea. Just last week, the U.S. Secret Service reported criminals had stolen $100 billion in pandemic relief funds. Arguably that's a small amount compared to the $3.5 trillion in emergency aid disbursed since COVID lockdowns began in March 2020 — and an acceptable drawback for getting needed money to recipients in a hurry — but such headlines tend to make politicians skittish.

The bigger question is whether Omicron is a temporary problem or if this is what our pandemic future looks like. If it is, temporary aid to small business might not be that helpful — it might simply delay painful but inevitable adjustments to a new normal. At some point, an emergency stops being an emergency and instead becomes ... life.