Charlotte Caterpillar dealer CEO asks Cooper for return-to-work action

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Ed Weisger Jr., president and CEO of CTE (Carolina Tractor and Equipment) in Charlotte, sent this letter to Gov. Roy Cooper this week. It follows similar pleas by N.C. business leaders to the governor, asking him to take more aggressive actions in reopening the state’s economy. CTE employs 1,500 and is among the state’s biggest private companies as a dealer for Caterpillar, Yale and Hyster construction equipment and products.

April 27, 2020

Dear Governor Cooper:

I like to deal in facts.

When my mother died two years ago, her health was compromised before she contracted a respiratory illness that ultimately caused her to pass. For those of us unfortunately familiar with terminology on death certificates, her cause was listed as “failure to thrive.” I never found out the medical facts behind my mother’s passing – perhaps it was accelerated by the seasonal flu or being in an assisted living environment – she was in ill health prior, and while I was not looking to place blame, I was left devastated.

Ed Weisiger

The COVID-19 virus has upended our state and our society. Certainly, some deaths have been hastened by complications from the virus and some have been caused by it. Consequently, many have lost loved ones or have been adversely impacted by the virus. These are facts.

There is much more to learn about COVID-19: clarity on the rate of infection and fatality rates in our population; how to produce more accurate models; and the errors associated with measuring the severity of this pandemic by total infection counts instead of infections per capita. As more widespread testing results are returned, hopefully the New York and California antibody testing results will be confirmed – this virus is exponentially less deadly than we originally thought.

You deserve credit for promoting the shelter in place orders, enacting social distancing and good hygiene policies, and keeping our healthcare facilities far under capacity limitations. Looking back to March, however, modeling predicted that today our state would be over-capacity of hospital beds, near 200% capacity of ICU beds, hundreds-deep shortages of ventilators, and five times as many deaths. Thirty days ago, we would have been ecstatic to learn of our present-day progress during this fight. These are facts.

We now unfortunately know the shelter in place orders have been impactful in other ways: North Carolina has over 700,000 citizens who have applied for unemployment, many businesses are closed and some may never open again, the economy will experience a frightful fall in GDP, school work has been disrupted and hindered student progress beyond this year, and mental health, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and loneliness have spiked. These are facts.

In North Carolina, we have traded away positive economic and welfare outcomes for a largely undefined best possible healthcare outcome. I would be foolish to assert that sheltering in place was not the correct trade-off for the past 6 weeks, given the dire healthcare capacity predictions. Now that we have achieved our original goal of flattening the curve and avoided an overrun of our hospitals, we must move to a more balanced approach to managing this trade-off.

As the limitations to commerce are loosened, North Carolinians must have the opportunity to showcase their resiliency and capability of functioning under new social distancing guidance and CDC hygiene protocols. In times of crisis, we look to our elected officials for regulatory guidance through a collaborative process. Employers are best equipped to get our employees back to work safely and efficiently, which is why I was troubled to read reports that the North Carolina Coronavirus Advisory Committee has only met once, in March, and that the Governor’s Business Council had not been afforded the opportunity to assist in an execution strategy of the reopening plans announced last week. Businesses and institutions are preparing to execute many new social distancing policies, deploy appropriate PPE and sanitization practices, and galvanize workplace safety for their workforces. In fact, we have many examples of businesses being ahead of policy recommendations. These, too, are facts.

The reopening plans announced by your administration Thursday put in place a calendar that will give assurance to some sectors of our economy but will add uncertainty and stress to others. Missing from these announcements, however, is a much-needed balance between government recommended health and safety restrictions and what businesses need to get back to work.

The long-term realities of balancing these trade-offs were described acutely by Bill Gates on April 23rd. His article titled, “The first modern pandemic” lays out the balance of life and working with this virus for the foreseeable future. It examines in detail the need for persistence and resilience, and for the hopeful innovation that will eventually allow us to claim victory in the pandemic.

After my grandfather started our company in 1926, it was built and tested in the throes of the most important economic downturn in American history. The greatest thing I learned from him: persistence and resilience. Something I strive to promote inside of our company each day. Today, when I think about our economic recovery efforts I recall my good friend Temple Sloan recently offered to you the wise words of Winston Churchill, “give us the tools, we’ll finish the job,” and I couldn’t agree more.

We must move forward not based on the fear surrounding the new cases each day, because we now know that eliminating this virus is not possible. Further, as we balance the healthcare imperatives with reopening of the economy, we must not treat a slight increase in cases as a policy failure. Based not on fear, we must move forward on protecting hospital capacity and maintaining availability of care, especially for our most vulnerable.

We are closer than ever before to managing COVID-19 as a chronic disease, not as the only disease. In the coming week, as we learn more about the specifics being used to achieve the required reopening benchmarks – we should not continue to adjust the definition of progress as often as modeling predictions are changed.

By making more data available immediately, like specific measured benchmarks that we all can see, and the data of how people contracted the virus, businesses can decide where to focus additional precautions and safety measures. Let’s deal in facts, not speculation. In Carolina CAT’s case, we have in excess of 1500 employees – only one has tested positive for the virus, and this infection did not come from the workplace. We can get back to work and do it safely. Give us the tools, we’ll finish the job. That can be a fact too.

Best regards,

Ed Weisiger, Jr.

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