Congressional fly-ins during a pandemic – ‘If we couldn’t go to D.C., D.C. could still come to us’

NRF reimagined its annual Retail Advocates Summit this year, the theme was “Agility in a Time of Crisis.”

As NRF reimagined its annual Retail Advocates Summit this year, the theme was “Agility in a Time of Crisis.”

But the first agility that needed to be demonstrated was how to bring more than 200 small retailers and state retail association executives together with members of Congress at a time when a global pandemic makes a trip to Washington impractical, if not impossible.

In response, NRF has turned the in-person fly-in into a series of virtual mini-conferences that still let retailers and lawmakers meet “face-to-face” — even if the faces are on computer monitors and the conversations take place over Webex.

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“I’m glad if we couldn’t go to D.C., D.C. could still come to us and we could still participate in this event and make it really worthwhile,” Texas Retailers Association President and CEO George Kelemen said.

NRF held the first virtual Retail Advocates Town Hall on September 22 as a joint session for retailers from Texas and Oklahoma. Similar to the traditional in-person Retail Advocates Summit, NRF lobbyists briefed retailers on key issues facing the industry in Washington, and lawmakers were questioned on their positions on issues important to retailers. A similar event was held this week for Ohio retailers and additional sessions are scheduled this month for Florida and Washington state.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agreed that additional assistance is needed for businesses trying to survive the economic impact of the pandemic.

“This is the greatest economic catastrophe we’ve seen since the Great Depression,” Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said. “Both parties should be focused very directly on getting people back to work.”

“It’s been six months since we passed the CARES Act,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “The CARES Act saved a lot of businesses and kept a lot of people from poverty [but] it’s clear we need to invest so much more.”

Among the eight senators and representatives who participated in the Texas/Oklahoma event and six who joined the Ohio gathering, there was broad support for NRF’s priorities for pandemic relief. Lawmakers addressed the need to bring back and expand the Paycheck Protection Program, which helped retailers keep workers on the payroll in the spring and early summer, passage of the pending Healthy Workplaces Tax Credit to help cover costs such as personal protective equipment, and liability protection against lawsuits from either employees or customers over exposure to COVID-19.

In addition to hearing from lawmakers, retailers were honored for their work on legislation affecting the industry. Dale Copeland, owner of Copeland Appliances and mayor of Bartlesville, Okla., was named Oklahoma Retail Advocate of the Year, while John Raney, owner of Texas Aggieland Bookstore near the Texas A&M University campus in College Station and a member of the state House of Representatives, was named Texas Retail Advocate of the Year.

Despite its success, NRF Senior Vice President for Government Relations David French said he hopes the virtual version of the Retail Advocates Summit is a one-time occurrence.

“I really miss being able to get together in person,” French said. “Like everybody, we’re tired of the video format and the virtual world. We look forward to doing this event next time in person and back in Washington.”

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