Coronavirus outbreak creating industry uncertainty

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The outbreak of the coronavirus in Washington state has led to a state of emergency declaration by Governor Jay Inslee, the closure of numerous schools and telecommuting for major corporate employers including Facebook, Amazon and Boeing. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are currently 267 reported cases in Washington state, most of them in King County.

The reported impact to industries in the state so far has been mixed. The next state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council (ERFC) report may shed light on industry impacts via tax revenue drops, though the long-term consequences are difficult to gauge.

In addition to airline companies, among those already affected are hay producers who export to Asian countries including Japan. Washington Farm Bureau Vice President Brad Haberman told Lens that there’s currently a shortage of ships to export Timothy and alfalfa, leading to twice the number of full containers as usual.

“As a farmer I get concerned about our pricing,” he said. “Once you get hay backed up, they won’t want to pay as much. There’s an overabundance of supply, so the price is going down.”

Washington apple growers may face the same dilemma with China, but for right now Washington Apple Commission Toni Adams told Lens they won’t have the latest export data until next week. It’s a similar situation for the state potato industry; Washington State Potato Commission Executive Director Chris Voight says February trade data will be released in mid-April.

Adams said the virus has “slowed down” fruit exports, though based on what they’ve heard from in-country representatives, “in some markets it’s not as concerning. It really depends on the market. We’re also facing other extreme trade challenges that supersede that (coronavirus) as of right now.”

The virus is currently not affecting fruit production, yet Washington Tree Fruit Association Communications Manager Tim Kovis told Lens it’s too early in the season to know what the effects might be as the year progresses.

“So far we haven’t heard of any panic or folks who are overly worried about the virus spreading into our industry,” he said. “However, we’re encouraging them and a number of folks to take proactive steps.”

He added that members have updated worker hygiene practices following the 2011 federal Food Safety Modernization Act. “Our members have already robust food safety plans in place to ensure that we’re able to provide high quality and safe food to the public.”

Although dairy farming has been negatively impacted in states such as Texas, Save Family Farming Communications Director Dillon Honcoop told Lens that it’s “business as usual” in Washington. “There’s no real human contact as it’s (milk) produced and shipped out.”

In a recent podcast interview with Honcoop, Skagit County dairy farmer Dwayne Faber noted that China has agreed to allow dairy exports from the U.S. While dairy prices have fallen, Faber said “I almost feel the bigger factor is we’re putting out too much milk again.”

The rush to buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other products may give a boost to grocery stores, though for now Washington Retail Association President Renée Sunde offered a brief statement saying “we are monitoring the impact the COVID-19 outbreak is having on retailers who represent national chains, regional stores and small businesses across the state.”

The association plans to host a webinar for retailers and is compiling an online resource database. The Washington Hospitality Association has a similar resource page for hotel employers. Media Officer Jilian Henze told Lens “the good news is no industry is as prepared as we are to handle a virus. We do this (sanitation) every day.”

Haberman says one of the indirect effects of the virus across the board is undermining the ability to do long-term business planning. “Nobody does know when it’s going to end.”


Posted By: The Lens

Posted On: 3/12/2020