News Story

Business Owner Worries Closing Society Was ‘Colossal Mistake’

‘A lot of small business owners will not see the other side of the shutdown’

John Newell has cycled through multiple careers: A Naval Academy graduate who spent a decade on board or attending to naval vessels. A mechanical engineer who worked for manufacturers around the globe. The owner of a multistate real estate company.

Over many decades, the 61-year-old has rarely not been working.

Until now, that is. His latest enterprise, as the solo operator of Primal Woods, a portable sawmill based in Southwest Michigan, was declared nonessential by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The business came to full stop by her executive orders, issued in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Newell, reflecting on his own circumstances and the government mandates that dictate how we currently live, said in a weekend interview, “I just don’t get it.”

His operation, which typically involves transporting his mill to a site where a customer has timber ready to be transformed into lumber, requires little-to-no human contact. It is, for the most part, a one-man job.

Yet, by any reasonable interpretation of Whitmer’s order, which bans activity not required to protect life, he can’t do it.

Earlier in the day during which he spoke to Michigan Capitol Confidential, Newell made a shopping trip to Walmart.

“I was exposed to more COVID in a half-hour there than I would be in a year’s worth of operating the mill,” he said. “You can go to Menards and pick up all the lumber you want. But you can’t make your own.”

Newell said he is not looking for, nor deserving of, any particular sympathy. Due to his lifetime of enterprise, and a spouse whose employment is, for now, secure, the Newells are in “no danger of going hungry.”

“I won’t be driven into bankruptcy, I don’t have to worry about feeding my kids,” he said. “But a lot of small business owners will not see the other side of the shutdown. This shutdown will kill people.”

Newell has an acute awareness of how government dictates can, under the guise of public welfare, deaden human initiative. One of his post-Navy assignments was as the director of a manufacturing facility in the former East Germany, 10 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Production that had formerly required 1,000 workers was getting done, more proficiently, by 113, he said.

Before the communist regime collapsed, there had been no incentive to maximize productivity or allow human aspiration to flourish, Newell said.

The effect on East German prosperity, and public welfare, was profound, and almost uniformly negative.

“Nobody has ever succeeded at centrally planning an economy, and (Whitmer) is not going to be the first,” Newell said. “Yet she’s telling us we can’t go to work. When this ends, when we turn the switch, the (economic) engine is not going to automatically turn over.”

The new coronavirus is a daunting and unique challenge, but ordering the mass quarantine and idleness of mostly healthy people is, at the least, very questionable, he said. “We may look back on this in hindsight as a colossal mistake.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.