This is part one in a month-long series where we’ll be previewing the important aspects that we’ll need to focus on in the year ahead. Let’s help our citizens understand where our businesses are at, and let them know how we can help them thrive in 2021. We’ll focus on 2021 events, business trends, new changes, public policy outlooks, and we’ll use concrete examples from our Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber to show how organizations may adjust to 2021.

First though, we need to address the elephant in the room — how do you plan for the year ahead not knowing how COVID-19 will affect us? This is something our chamber is discussing right now as we build our 2021 work plan. Traditionally, our organization would already have the 2021 plan in place, but the community health uncertainty has left us in an interesting place.

Next week we’ll look into what decisions a leadership team needs to make, how quickly these decisions need to be made, and how to adjust your plans as the year unfolds. We’ll explore dual planning for projects, and how to prioritize opportunities to reach your goals.

But, before we can focus on how we’ll adjust to the uncertainty of COVID-19 in 2021, we need to look at why we still need to adjust to COVID-19 in 2021. The answer is pretty simple, though hard to accept, which is this: because we didn’t adapt well enough to COVID-19 in 2020.

That’s not a criticism of businesses, as many have adapted their procedures more in the last 10 months than likely in the last 10 years. This isn’t a criticism of state government leadership, which has been trying to provide the science-based guidance for the best community health outcomes. The fact that COVID-19 is still around comes down to one simple fact: collectively citizens didn’t do enough to try and stop its spread.

In my opinion, there is no greater factor in the success of our businesses in 2021 than controlling COVID-19 and getting back to normal. Simply put, the sooner we do, the better for all of our businesses. If we continue on the path we’re on, however, we’ll continue to suffer with businesses shuttering, high unemployment, and we’ll open ourselves up to even more dire business consequences.

Think about your fellow Mainers, visualize them for a moment. Think about everyone in your daily lives, in your monthly lives, and those you see once per year. Think about the familiar faces at the grocery store, other drivers on the road, the acquaintances you haven’t seen and the relatives in other parts of Maine who you don’t see as often as you’d like. Picture them in your mind. Pick out four or five faces, in particular. Do you have them in your mind? Good.

Now imagine, each and every one of them got COVID-19 this week. Literally, every single one of them. Because that’s what the national numbers are- about 250,000 new cases per day- which equates to the entire population of Maine in a five-day business week.

What if every day a mid-size Maine community got wiped off the map? We’re losing a Boothbay every day in America. Daily we lose the population of Newport, or Fort Fairfield, or Durham or Pittsfield. 3,000 to 4,000 deaths per day from COVID-19. The U.S. has had over 2 million new cases in just the first ten days of 2021.

I get it, we’re all tired of it. We’re bored. We want to see our friends and our families. 30% of us never cared enough to make any adjustments during COVID. Add to that those of us taking small chances every now and again. We have some gatherings. A little get-together won’t hurt, right? We go see family members. We say, to heck with it, and going drinking at a buddy’s house. We justify it by saying ‘you only live once, ‘no day like today’, and ‘I don’t know when I’ll see them again.’ So the numbers keep rising for all of us, because some of us don’t want to do all we can to stop it.

When will it be enough? When will it matter enough to take it seriously? Will it be when more businesses shut down? Will it be when national manufacturers are forced to move their businesses overseas because there aren’t enough healthy workers in the U.S.? Will the U.S. still be the leader in the global economy when countries stop trading with us because we can’t keep up with the demand they need or because they don’t want to risk the health consequences of our deliveries?

Yes, the vaccine will help, but it’ll take months to get everyone inoculated, and too many people are saying they won’t take the vaccine. So what’s our way out of this? Is it to continue to have 30-35% of people shirking health guidelines so all of us suffer the consequences of rising poor health? Or do we hold each other accountable?

Your businesses need you, right now. All of you. At least 80% of us need to get vaccinated and we need all who can to wear face masks and keep socially distanced. The worst part is, if we would have committed to it in the first place, we’d already be back to normal. But our rugged individualism, political polarization and distrust of institutions has put us in this perilous situation.

It’s up to us. We can come together and get past this, or 70% can continue to do their best, while the other 30% decide our fate by slowing or stopping any progress. From a business perspective, we’d all be better off with this behind us, but it’s literally up to you.

Next week, we’ll take a much lighter look at how we adjust moving into 2021. Be safe. Wear a mask. Stay home when you can, socially distance when you can’t. We’re all counting on you.

Cory King is the executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber.

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