Mar 26, 2020 10:00 AM

Senate unanimously passes massive coronavirus aid plan

Posted Mar 26, 2020 10:00 AM
View of the the U.S. Senate floor as they passed the $2 Trillion Coronavirus Economic Stimulus Bill, 96-0.  -image courtesy CSPAN
View of the the U.S. Senate floor as they passed the $2 Trillion Coronavirus Economic Stimulus Bill, 96-0.  -image courtesy CSPAN

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate passed an unparalleled $2.2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The unanimous vote Wednesday came despite misgivings on both sides about whether it goes too far or not far enough and capped days of difficult negotiations as Washington confronted a national challenge unlike it has ever faced.

The 880-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared somber and exhausted as he announced the vote — and he released senators from Washington until April 20, though he promised to recall them if needed.

“The legislation now before us now is historic because it is meant to match a historic crisis,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Our health care system is not prepared to care for the sick. Our workers are without work. Our businesses cannot do business. Our factories lie idle. The gears of the American economy have ground to a halt.”

The package is intended as relief for an economy spiraling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed more than 21,000 people worldwide. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, said: “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”

Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion-plus annual federal budget. The $2.2 trillion estimate is the White House’s best guess.

Insistently optimistic, President Donald Trump said of the greatest public health emergency in anyone’s lifetime, “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch” and anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when it’s over.

“The government has temporarily shut down the economy because of this disease, and the government must help those who are hurt by it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators from states whose economies are dominated by low-wage jobs demanded changes, saying the legislation as written might give workers like store clerks incentives to stay on unemployment instead of return to their jobs since they may earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working. They settled for a failed vote to modify the provision.

Other objections floated in from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said, “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”

Ardent liberals like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were restless as well, but top Washington Democrats assured them that additional coronavirus legislation will follow this spring and signaled that delaying the pending measure would be foolish.

The sprawling measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers and food aid.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swung behind the bipartisan agreement, saying it “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people.”

Senate passage delivered the legislation to the Democratic-controlled House, which is expected to pass it Friday. House members are scattered around the country. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the measure would pass by voice vote without lawmakers having to return to Washington.

The package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

It includes a heavily negotiated $500 billion program for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

Six days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among Congress’ top leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure was not an option — nor was starting over — which permitted both sides to include their priorities.

“This is a proud moment for the United States Senate and the country, and we’re going to win this battle,” McConnell told reporters afterward. “We’ve pivoted from impeachment to 100-to-nothing on this rescue package … this is about as flawless as you could possibly be.” The vote actually was 96-0 because several members missed the vote out of concerns they have been exposed to the virus.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has tested positive for it, while GOP Whip John Thune returned to South Dakota on Wednesday after feeling ill.

The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks to an estimated $130 billion. Another $45 billion would fund additional relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for local response efforts and community services.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salaries of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600-per-week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

Businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials, including Trump and his immediate family members, would be ineligible for the bill’s business assistance.

Schumer boasted of negotiating wins for transit systems, hospitals and cash-hungry state governments that were cemented after Democrats blocked the measure in votes held Sunday and Monday.

But Cuomo said the Senate package would send less than $4 billion to New York, far short of his estimate that the crisis will cost his state up to $15 billion over the next year. More than 280 New Yorkers have died from the virus, a death toll more than double that of any other state.

Still, Pelosi said the need for more money for New York is “no reason to stop the step we are taking.”

Pelosi was a force behind $400 million in grants to states to expand voting by mail and other steps that Democrats billed as making voting safer but Republican critics called political opportunism. The package also contains $15.5 billion more for a surge in demand for food stamps as part of a massive $330 billion title for agency operations.

State and local authorities would receive up to $150 billion in grants to fight the virus, care for their residents and provide basic services.

Republicans won inclusion of an employee retention tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ paycheck up to $10,000. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to $330 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters — including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

Europe is enacting its own economic recovery packages, with huge amounts of credit guarantees, government spending and other support.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, has agreed to commit more than 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) in fiscal stimulus and support — roughly 30% of that nation’s entire annual output. France, Spain and Italy have launched similar programs.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

In the United States, more than 69,000 people have been sickened and more than 1,000 have died.

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Mar 26, 2020 10:00 AM
Rural America watches pandemic erupt in cities as fear grows

DUFUR, Ore. (AP) — The social distancing rules repeated like a mantra in America’s urban centers, where the coronavirus is spreading exponentially, might seem silly in wide-open places where neighbors live miles apart and “working from home” means another day spent branding calves or driving a tractor alone through a field.

But as the pandemic spreads through the U.S., those living in rural areas, too, are increasingly threatened. Tiny towns tucked into Oregon’s windswept plains and cattle ranches miles from anywhere in South Dakota might not have had a single case of the new coronavirus, but their main streets are also empty and their medical clinics overwhelmed by the worried.

Residents from rural Alabama to the woods of Vermont to the frozen reaches of Alaska fear the spread of the disease from outsiders, the social isolation that comes when the town’s only diner closes, and economic collapse in places where jobs were already tough to come by.

“Nobody knows what to do and they’re just running in circles, so stay away from me is what I’m saying,” said Mike Filbin, a 70-year-old cattle rancher in Wasco County, Oregon, one of the few parts of the state that has yet to see a case of COVID-19.

“Right now, we’re pretty clean over here, but we’re not immune to nothin’ — and if they start bringing it over, it’ll explode here.”

To make matters worse, some of the most remote communities have limited or no internet access and spotty cellphone service. That makes telecommuting and online learning challenging in an era of blanket school and work closures, and it eliminates the possibility of the FaceTime card games and virtual cocktail hours that urban Americans have turned to in droves to stay connected.

The routine ways that rural Americans connect — a bingo night, stopping in at a local diner or attending a potluck — are suddenly taboo.

“Rural people are reliant on their neighbors and have more confidence and trust in their neighbors,” said Ken Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. “Now you have people who are supposed to self-isolate themselves. What does that mean when people you depend on, in order to help you, are going to put themselves and their families at risk? I don’t know what that will do in rural America.”

Neil Bradshaw, the mayor of Ketchum, Idaho, is starting to see the answer in his own community.

The rural resort town has struggled since the arrival of COVID-19, and he fears if the virus lingers too long, it could devastate it. The town is nestled next door to the tony skiing destination Sun Valley Resort and is known as the second-home haven for dozens of celebrities.

It’s also become the epicenter of Idaho’s caseload, with at least 35 cases and known community spread of the virus. At least 14 of the cases are among health care workers, forcing the town’s small medical workers to bring in replacement staffers from nearby cities.

“Our town thrives on people coming to town, and for the first time in our history we are discouraging visitors,” said Bradshaw, of the town of 2,700 people. “Initially people had different levels of adoption, but there’s tremendous community pressure that we’re all in this together. We’ve gone from being a vibrant town to a ghost town.”

The town’s coffers rely on a local option tax, and if that drops by half the city will have lost $700,000 in revenue, he said.

Some communities have pushed back on shutdowns that have brought daily life to a standstill. Leaders from seven Utah counties, for example, sent a letter earlier this week to Gov. Gary Herbert urging a “return to normalcy,” and said the closure of schools and business was causing panic and hurting the economy.

“As of (Monday), the total deaths attributed to the virus in the United States stands at ninety,” the letter states. “Not nine hundred, not nine thousand, not ninety thousand. Ninety. This number is sure to rise in the near future but we need to keep our wits about us.”

Others worry about outsiders bringing the disease to truly remote areas that aren’t equipped to deal with it. Across the nation, there are over 51,000 general intensive care beds in urban counties, compared with just 5,600 in rural counties, according to data compiled by The Associated Press.

Those beds serve a smaller population than in urban areas, but it would still take fewer people in rural areas to overwhelm a typical hospital. In fiscal year 2018, the average rural hospital had eight ICU beds, compared with 20 for a typical hospital in an urban area.

In Georgiana, a small town in southern Alabama, the only hospital closed last year and residents have now been forced to flock to the health clinic instead when a person in a town 5 miles (8 kilometers) away was diagnosed with COVID-19. More than 30% of Georgiana’s 1,600 residents are over age 60, putting them at higher risk with limited medical facilities to serve them, said Mayor Jerome Antone.

The town’s older residents, he said, are “aggressively upset” even though no one there has been diagnosed yet.

In Alaska’s Point Hope, an Inupiat whaling village at the edge of the Arctic Ocean nearly 700 miles  north of Anchorage, tribal leaders have been preparing and discussing potential issues such as air travel into town. The state’s limited road system doesn’t reach the community of 900 people, which relies on planes for much of its connection to the outside world.

This week, one of the two airlines that serve Point Hope will begin restricting flights to cargo and passengers with medical or other essential needs.

Still, residents worry the recent deaths of two elders will bring out-of-town mourners for the funerals.

“We have all kinds of different people who come into our village,” said acting Mayor Daisy Sage. “This coronavirus is serious.”

Thousands of miles away, in South Dakota, falling prices for beef are generating as much — or more — worry than the virus.

Sam Stoddard, a cattle rancher near the small community of Kadoka, population 650, said futures markets for beef have dropped up to 30% because of the coronavirus. He’s worried about longtime ranchers being able to hang on.

If the market remains terrible, he said, ranchers can put off selling their calves until later in the year — but no one knows how long the economy will be in upheaval, leaving everyone stressed.

At the same time, the state has not shuttered businesses, leaving residents wondering what to expect next. South Dakota has 30 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

“Normally this time of year we’re more worried about a big blizzard coming in and killing 10% of our calves. You know it’s coming, and you can prepare for it,” said Stoddard, who lives 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the nearest town of any size.

“With this, you don’t know what’s coming or what you should be doing.”

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