What a Weird Time This Is

We’re sitting here on the Ides of March staring down something that is somewhere between the greatest threat our species has faced in multiple generations and “just the flu, bro”. I acknowledge that latter scenario is unlikely and, further, that even suggesting it lands me in the camp of “those people” beneath contempt in the eyes of many. To distance myself, let me say I’ve long been critical of the hare-brained flu analogy in all its forms from all its perpetrators, including political leaders and, of course, behavioral economists. The uncertainty around COVID-19 – then and now – is what makes this categorically different, to say nothing of the data coming out about symptom severity. I acknowledge that there remains the possibility that somehow this virus runs out of steam, causing us to look back on this time as one of unnecessary hysteria, and I would love for that to happen.

But we’ve been bracing for the more severe scenario – the one that looks increasingly likely and the one that we should always be prepared for. Personally, do we have what we need if our supply lines get cut? If we get sick? If our income dries up? How long can we make it? 

And we do the same for our business. How could Holler Brewing survive in each scenario? What do we do about beer production and inventory? How do we keep our employees safe? How long do we keep the taproom open? What do we do about events? If we have to close, how do we ensure we can re-open? What do we do for our employees who depend on us? What should we be telling our customers and accounts?

These questions are all informed by our personal view of what individuals should do about COVID-19. I’m an avid fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan), who often invokes the Precautionary Principle. This says that when risk of ruin is involved, traditional cost-benefit analysis should not be used – instead, you should reduce that risk of ruin, at any cost you can bear. In other words, when it comes to phenomena like novel pandemics, in the face of uncertainty, you should panic, and you should panic early. It’s better to panic and be wrong 100 times than to not panic and be wrong once. This is different than “just the flu, bro”, because the flu’s characteristics are known to the extent necessary to rule out the possibility of ruin (say, deaths of tens of millions). Precaution means to over-react in order to protect your downside, and it’s necessary when your survival is at stake. Taleb, along with Joe Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam, wrote an advisory on this virus in January that prescribed precautionary measures that we’re just now starting to take. They were, tragically, ahead of their time.

Though it would’ve been more effective sooner, today’s precautionary measure is social distancing. The objective being to prevent the Italy scenario – where the virus spreads so fast that hospitals are overwhelmed and must resort to triage. If we go out into a public space, we should be vigilant about sanitation. But, importantly, we should minimize our trips into public spaces. This is at odds with a currently popular sentiment that says, “Support commerce! Support your local restaurants, bars, cafes and breweries. They need you and their staff need you. They’re counting on you!”

This sentiment is appealing, partly because it’s based on a true premise. They are counting on you. Many people and businesses are living paycheck to paycheck, and they can’t afford a 20% or 50% dip in business for a couple weeks – let alone a months-long hiatus. Therefore, isn’t it incumbent upon us, as long as we’re feeling well, to visit them and give them our business? This message is being supported by our local leaders. Harris County’s preparedness website currently encourages us to go out and about, reassuring us that shopping and eating out are okay.

Harris County’s Lina Hidalgo thinks you should go shopping with 248 other people (readyharris.org)

Apparently, just as many individuals and businesses cannot afford an interruption in commerce, neither can many of our elected officials.

But, what’s affordable can change in the face of the alternative, as we’ve seen this play out in other countries. And thanks to the power of exponential growth, this can change very rapidly. Days after appearing completely normal, France enforced full quarantine and shuttered all non-essential businesses yesterday. If our case pattern continues, soon we’ll have no choice but to do the same.

In the meantime, we’re personally not following Lina Hidalgo’s advice to go out and about as normal. We (Kathryn, me, and our one-year-old Margo) go out to a local Italian place every Saturday for lunch – this is our family’s strongest tradition and always a highlight of our week. We were torn on yesterday’s outing. After long deliberation, we did decide to continue the tradition one more day, but we acknowledged that it will be our last meal out for a while. A dinner out that evening had been on the books with 2 other couples, babysitters and all. We all agreed to re-form it into a “dinner in” – we picked up take-out from the restaurant and ate together at our house, with a hint of guilt that even such a modest gathering may look foolish with a week’s worth of retrospect.

Back to the business, then. If we’re personally not going out, then why haven’t we shuttered our tap room? This might sound like mental gymnastics to some, but our analysis is that shutting our tap room would not keep anyone from going out – it would not encourage anyone to socially distance. If we closed, the people who would’ve visited us will simply go to their next choice of tap room, bar, or café, because they all remain open. We would permanently lose customers and our employees would lose the opportunity to earn income. 

Thus, we’ve decided at this time to remain open, so long as we’re allowed to remain open, our employees wish to work, and our customers wish to visit us. Like everyone else, we rolled out a host of modifications to our procedures and offerings to be hyper-sanitary and we announced how these changes will affect our customers. Our managers and staff are being vigilant about who is touching what and how things are being sanitized, and our customers are being very patient. We’re going through multiple bottles of Purell and lots of isopropyl alcohol every day.

We’re attempting to walk a fine line. While we’re staying open, we’ve canceled all events and we’re not extending our opening hours just because folks are out of work and school. Our social media posts are plain vanilla announcements of who the food truck is and what our tap room hours are – no bargains or special releases that might entice someone to leave their house. We’re especially careful not to ask folks to “support” us – we do not want anyone reducing their social distance out of some perceived moral obligation to buy a beer.

Is this, in the end, the right call? A week from now, it will either look reckless or paranoid. For now, it just feels very weird.