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
UPDATE: What Kansans need to know about the COVID-19 coronavirus
Health officials say one way to stop the spread of the new coronavirus is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

Kansas News Service

The new coronavirus is spreading quickly around the world, including across Kansas, and setting off a range of responses.

The Kansas News Service is boiling down key developments in the state and updating the status regularly here. To read this information in Spanish, go here. This list was last updated at 2:10 p.m. March 31.

CASES AND DEATHS

430 cases, including two from out of state (see map for counties)

9 deaths (4 in Wyandotte County, 3 in Johnson County, 1 each in Sedgwick and Crawford counties)

NOTE: These figures only include cases confirmed with lab tests and do not represent the real, unknown total. Community transmission is occurring in parts of Kansas.

STATEWIDE ORDER TO STAY HOME

Gov. Laura Kelly is instituting a statewide stay-at-home order as of 12:01 a.m. March 30. It will last until at least April 19. Stay-at-home orders allow people to take care of essential activities (such as grocery shopping or going to work) as well as exercise outside, but otherwise keep to themselves. 

The state’s stay-at-home order supersedes at least 13 county-by-county orders. Should the state’s order lift before a county’s is through, the county can choose to keep its own in effect.

SHOULD I SELF-QUARANTINE?

For the whole state: The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is now mandating home quarantine for 14 days if you've traveled to the places listed below. If you come down with symptoms (such as a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, coughing or shortness of breath) during those 14 days, contact your health care provider and explain your potential COVID-19 exposure.  

  1. Louisiana or anywhere in Colorado on or after March 27.
  2. States with known widespread community transmission (California, Florida, New York and Washington) on or after March 15.
  3. Illinois or New Jersey on or after March 23.
  4. Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison counties in Colorado (if your visit was March 8th or later).
  5. Cruise ships or river cruises on or after March 15. Anyone previously told to quarantine because of their cruise ship travel should also finish out their quarantine.
  6. International destinations on or after March 15. Anyone previously told to quarantine because of their international travel should also finish out their quarantine.

TESTING AVAILABILITY

As of March 27, Kansas health secretary Lee Norman said the state lab was handling 175 samples a day. But Kansas will receive more equipment within about a week that will let it handle 700 to 1,000 samples daily, though shortages of specialized supplies such as nose swabs may still hamper work at times. 

Norman said there’s enough capacity in the state, now that testing has ramped up through commercial labs and hospitals. State testing is reserved for high-risk groups, such as sick nursing home residents and health care workers. Others can ask their doctor or nurse practitioner to order through private labs.

What Kansas still lacks is enough testing material to study COVID-19 rates among people without symptoms.

KANSAS HAS DECLARED A STATE OF EMERGENCY. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

It gives the state government more power to marshal resources and triggers the state's response plan. The state Legislature has extended Kelly's declaration through May (and can extend it), with the aim of giving her the ability to make certain decisions when lawmakers aren’t in session.

On March 22, Kelly eased state rules to expand the use of telemedicine, to temporarily license more health workers and to allow heavier trucks on Kansas highways hauling relief supplies. On March 23, she ordered a ban on evictions if a tenant was unable to pay because of the coronavirus crisis. And she extended the income tax filing deadline to July 15, in line with a delay for filing federal tax forms.

HOW ARE UNIVERSITIES RESPONDING?

K-State, University of Kansas and Wichita State: All of them will go fully online for the end of the school year. Students at K-State and KU will need special exemptions to remain in dorms.

Other colleges: Washburn and Fort Hays State are online. Newman University expanded spring break for two weeks (March 14 to March 29). Johnson County Community College will close campus from March 14-29, and all courses will restart online March 30. Pittsburg State started break a day early and will resume classes indefinitely online on March 30.

HOW ABOUT K-12 SCHOOLS?

Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson have shut down all K-12 schools, public, private and parochial, for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. They had initially issued a strong recommendation that schools close March 16 through 20. 

Some county health departments had already issued similar orders. 

A Kansas State Department of Education task force has issued guidance to school districts on how to continue some amount of student learning. 

WHAT’S BEEN CANCELED OR SUSPENDED?

The governor’s executive order temporarily banning landlords from evicting businesses or residential tenants is effective until May 1. That same order put in a moratorium on any mortgage foreclosures through the same period.

The governor mandated on March 23, through an executive order, that gatherings be restricted to less than 10 people.

Kansas state workers: Access to the Statehouse is limited to official business only, and lawmakers went on break early. Kelly wanted most state employees to stay home for at least two weeks starting March 23.

State prisons: The Kansas Department of Corrections ended visitation at all state facilities, and will “re-evaluate on an ongoing basis.” It urges families to talk to inmates through email, phone calls and video visits. 

Electric companies: Evergy, which serves 950,000 customers in Kansas, will not disconnect residential or business services for an unspecified amount of time due to the “unprecedented challenge” of coronavirus that “may result in customers facing unexpected or unusual financial strain.”

Casinos: All four state-owned gaming facilities will close at the end of business on March 17, and remain so until at least March 30.

Public events: Many events and public places around the state have been canceled until at least the end of March. 

Sports: The Kansas State High School Athletics Association canceled the state basketball tournament midway through it. And the Big 12 suspended spring sports until March 29.  

HOW BAD IS THE VIRUS? 

COVID-19 usually causes mild to moderate symptoms, like a fever or cough. Most people with mild symptoms recover in two weeks. More severe cases, found in older adults and people with health issues, can have up to six weeks’ recovery time or can lead to death.

HOW CAN YOU AVOID IT?

  1. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Frequently.
  2. Cover your coughs.
  3. If you’re an older Kansan or medically fragile, put off any vacations and limit your trips to the grocery store or any public space.
  4. Stay home if you are sick — this goes for all ages.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON COVID-19

Kansas Department of Health and Environment: http://www.kdheks.gov/coronavirus/

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.