A year after US COVID-19 lockdowns began, Al Jazeera asked US small businesswomen about challenges and silver linings.
The United States economy added 916,000 jobs in March, edging the unemployment rate down to 6 percent for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began more than a year ago, data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) revealed Friday.
March’s jobless figures represented the biggest jump in hiring since August and are in line with a steady decline in unemployment, which hit an all-time high of 14.8 percent in April 2020, when many states imposed strict lockdown measures and shuttered businesses to curb the spread of COVID-19.
President Joe Biden lauded the progress that had been made in a televised address Friday, saying his American Rescue Plan had laid the foundation for economic recovery.
“Today’s report is good news,” Biden said. “Today’s report shows that the country what it can do when we act together to fight a virus, to give working people the help they need. And we still have a long way to go, but I know that we’re going to get there, and we’re going get there together.”
But the president warned there were still “8.4 million fewer jobs today than there were last March”.
“Too many Americans have been unemployed for longer than six months. Too many women have been forced out of the workforce. Unemployment among people of colour remains far too high,” Biden said.
A year into the pandemic, BLS data shows many Americans are going back to work, particularly in the leisure and hospitality, public and private education and construction industries. US manufacturers expanded at the fastest pace since 1983 in March, the Institute for Supply Management reported, and manufacturing employment rose by 53,000 in March.
Gradual reopening of businesses — and increases in capacity limits — have helped firms rehire workers, with restaurants, bars and hotels adding 216,000 jobs in March. A year ago, the Northeast region was the epicentre of the US coronavirus outbreak. But those states — including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — are now loosening restrictions.
On March 10, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced they would ease long-standing capacity restrictions on restaurants, upping indoor capacity to 50 percent from 35 percent. Cuomo also said restaurants outside of New York City could begin operating at 75 percent capacity indoors, up from 50 percent.
Neighbouring Connecticut allowed restaurants to return to full capacity on March 19, announcing sporting events could resume and ending mandatory quarantine periods for out-of-region visitors.
The governors of Texas and Mississippi both announced on March 2 that they were lifting all business restrictions and ending their states’ face mask mandates, despite the urging of public health officials not to do so.
The accelerating pace of vaccinations and the passage of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill, which included $1,400 direct payments to qualifying Americans, have helped boost consumer confidence.
More than 99.5 million Americans — 30 percent of the population — have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and more than 56 million are now fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Frigid weather and sluggish Congressional negotiations over Biden’s bill led to a decline in both consumer spending and personal incomes in February, but economists predicted a rebound in March — and they got it.
Consumer confidence hit its highest level since the pandemic began, the Conference Board reported, with 18.5 percent of consumers claiming business conditions are “good”, up from 16.1 percent the month before. That confidence has led Americans to open their wallets for big-ticket items like houses and cars.
US vehicle sales jumped to 17.75 million in March, the highest level since December 2017, Bloomberg News reported. US house prices saw their biggest gains in seven years in January. While major winter storms sidelined the construction industry in some parts of the country, warmer temperatures brought more employment, BLS data showed, and the construction industry added 110,000 jobs in March.
The US’s spring bloom is at risk from rising COVID-19 infections, however, and health officials have warned the country is not out of the woods yet.
After plateauing earlier in March, US cases reached a total 64,149 as of April 1, and there were 917 new deaths, according to the CDC. Many of the Northeastern states that lifted restrictions are now seeing the highest number of cases.
Earlier this week, CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky pleaded with Americans to continue practising safety measures and taking the pandemic seriously, sharing that she has a “recurring feeling I have of impending doom”.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope, but right now, I’m scared,” Walensky told reporters.
Rising cases and fresh lockdown measures could slam the brakes on the US’s recovery, as consumer spending is responsible for roughly two-thirds of US economic growth.
The recovery also remains unequal. The unemployment rate for Asian Americans rose to 6 percent in March after declining the previous month, and at 9.6 percent and 7.9 respectively, the rates for Black Americans and Hispanic Americans remain much higher than the unemployment rate for white people (5.4 percent).
And while March’s figures are an improvement, 9.7 million Americans remain out of work — a staggering 4 million more than before the pandemic hit in February 2020. The number of people who have been unemployed long-term (for 27 weeks or more) remained unchanged at 4.2 million, labour department data shows.
There are also 6.9 million Americans who reported wanting a job but are currently out of the labour force and who were not counted in the broader unemployment figures because they were not actively looking for work over the past month or were unable to take a job, BLS said. That number remains unchanged from recent months, but remains 1.8 million higher than it was before the pandemic began in February 2020.