What Is Congress Doing About The Coronavirus?
Lawmakers in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress have been scrambling over the last several weeks to legislate for the largest public health crisis since the 1919 flu. WKAR Politics Reporter Abigail Censky spoke with Representative Elissa Slotkin (MI-08) and Michigan Senator Gary Peters about what Congress is doing to address the coronavirus pandemic spreading across the U.S. Below are highlights of their conversation.
What’s Been Done So Far?
Last week, lawmakers passed an $8.3 billion dollar spending bill, including $14.5 million earmarked for Michigan.
The money will go toward helping the state buy personal protective equipment like masks, gowns, and vaccines, as well as provide cash to reimburse the state and local government for detection efforts like lab testing and contact tracing to help identify additional positive COVID-19 cases.
Late Wednesday evening the President signed Congress’ second coronavirus relief bill. The bill will provide paid leave, food assistance, and free coronavirus testing.
Free Coronavirus Testing—If You Qualify To Be Tested
There is a shortage of tests available across the country, including Michigan, so while testing is free—it doesn’t ensure that one will be available.
“We're providing the resources, it's up to the administration to roll this out and implement it. There's no question we are far behind in testing relative to other countries. We got a late start. I've been pounding the table from the beginning that you have to test. Without testing and not knowing where folks who are ill and who's not means trying to deal with a pandemic is extremely difficult,” said Senator Peters.
Michigan is still reportedly rationing tests based upon the severity of symptoms, travel history, and presence of underlying health conditions.
“We started too late. I mean, quite frankly, you know, we had a, we had a president that didn't think we had a problem until now. It's a huge problem. And as a result of that, we're trying to play catch up,” said Peters.
“The money has been provided, but you need to get our private laboratories engaged our public laboratories engaged. But you also need to do things like setup drive through testing sites,” said Peters via phone on Wednesday. He added, “Until that happens. It's going to take longer to try to wrap our arms around this.”
Thursday, the state officially started combining results from the state lab with university and hospital results, as well as private lab results—causing the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Michigan to spike to 336.
For The Unemployed
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed Wednesday also enhances unemployment insurance, and provides family and medical leave, but many Americans are left out via loopholes leaving them potentially uncovered in the pandemic. Companies with more than 500 employees, can be exempt, as well as companies with fewer than 50 employees. Hospitals and nursing homes can also be exempt.
Senator Peters says they’re working on closing the loopholes, “We're looking to expand that and expand it to folks who aren't part of the unemployment system. Now in addition to things like small business owners, small business owners now wouldn't qualify or unemployment, but if their businesses shut down, they still need to put food on the table and pay their bills.”
The goal, he says, is to make sure everyone is covered including people like, “folks who are in the gig economy who are basically like contractors.” Peters said, “They may not qualify for unemployment insurance; We need to make sure that they qualify, we have to make sure we're putting money in people's pockets so that they can buy groceries and, and pay their pay their rent and continue to function while we deal with a public health crisis.”
Families whose kids are home because of school closures will qualify for three months of paid leave that expires at the end of the year. Employers and self-employed workers will be reimbursed for wages paid through these programs through refundable tax credits.
What About Small Businesses?
Thursday, the Small Business Administration approved Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s request for the statewide Economic Injury Disaster Loan after she closed all of the bars, restaurants, and gathering places in the state earlier in the week. Unemployment claims have risen 550% compared to what's normal this time of year, according to the state unemployment office.
Small businesses will now be eligible to apply for loan interest loans, pulling from the $1 billion dollars, congress approved last week. Eighth district Representative Elissa Slotkin, has released guidance on preparing for the applications. Friday, she’ll hold a virtual forum to offer information and advice to small businesses. Small businesses can register to participate in the call, here.
The Third Relief Bill
Congress now has plans to pass an economic recovery bill. “The big enchilada will be the economic recovery package. And that one's going to be a real debate, you know, do we bail out things like the airline industry? Or do we not? Do we impose some guidance and restrictions on these companies so that we're not just falling back into some of the same patterns? Afterwards, there's some really important, crucial debates that are coming up in the next 10 to 15 days,” said Representative Slotkin.
Senator Peters confirmed the third spending bill could be a massive amount of money to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic.
“Right now as we discuss proposals to deal with a financial crisis that's going along with a public health crisis. We're looking at numbers from anywhere from $750 billion to $1 trillion. This will be a massive package that's going to be necessary to help our small business owners and families that are being impacted,” said Peters.