Good news for those on Social Security and small businesses was among the focuses of a “telephone town hall” with U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who was joined by economic and health officials as the congresswoman addressed parts of a $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package the federal government passed late last month.
Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, had the second telephone event addressing COVID-19 response Wednesday, April 1, joined again by Clark County Health Officer and Public Health Director Alan Melnick and by officials representing business and workforce support in Southwest Washington. The chief topic of the talk were the impacts of the “monumental” CARES Act that President Donald Trump signed into law March 27, a $2 trillion funding package designed to bring relief to individuals and businesses during widespread shutdowns.
Herrera Beutler went over the highlights of the act, which included expanded unemployment insurance eligibility to self-employed workers and contractors. She also mentioned $350 billion that was part of a “paycheck protection program” for small businesses, with the goal being to keep employees on company payrolls, Herrera Beutler said, adding that businesses who do so can receive loan forgiveness.
Herrera Beutler said another $100 billion was allotted for hospitals and healthcare facilities so they can buy supplies needed for COVID-19 response, such as personal protective equipment (PPE). For more widespread financial assistance she said individuals and families will also receive direct payments of up to $1,200 for individuals, $2,400 for couples and $500 per qualified child.
Herrera Beutler said the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service had announced earlier that day that Social Security recipients who are generally not required to file tax returns will still receive their payouts.
“The goal here is to make sure that senior citizens, individuals with disabilities and low-income Americans get those payments quickly and without undue burden,” Herrera Beutler said.
Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC) President Jennifer Baker mentioned the CREDC website (credc.org/covid19businessresources) which she said is updated daily with resources for business assistance during COVID-19 response. She specifically mentioned a survey there where businesses can give feedback on what issues they have been facing.
Since that survey launched, Baker said she’s seen respondents anticipating impacts of virus response increase over time, going from about half at its launch March 10 to closer to 95 percent as of the day before the telephone town hall.
When it came to asking for help, Baker acknowledged that there was “a tremendous amount of pride” in the business community, though she assured that for those facing impacts of COVID-19 response, “you are not alone.”
“Our response and our resiliency as a community will really be incumbent on each of us as individuals to continue to support our local business community,” Baker said.
Workforce Southwest Washington Business Services Manager Darcy Hoffman spoke about “standby status” unemployment, which she said allowed companies to temporarily lay off their employees. The status exempts unemployment recipients from the job search requirement due to an estimated return-to-work date, she explained, and could be requested by either the employer or employee.
Hoffman added that due to COVID-19 response the job search requirement for unemployment benefits was optional for any type until further notice.
Apart from a focus on the financial hits the economy is taking, Melnick spoke from the public health response side of the crisis, reiterating the importance of following the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, which allows only essential trips out of the home for things like groceries and medical care. He said it is important that when one does go out to maintain 6 feet of distance from others and to only send one family member out on a trip if possible to reduce the number of people out and about.
Melnick also recommended not having gatherings — indoors or outdoors — with people who were not members of the household, including not letting children play with others in the neighborhood.
“Use technology to visit virtually when possible,” Melnick said, advising one caller not to visit with loved ones during the COVID-19 response.
“Nobody from different households should be getting together at this moment,” Melnick said. “I know it’s really difficult.”
Herrera Beutler acknowledged her own family was grappling with isolation from their loved ones outside the house, but the potential for serious health effects made it paramount to keep distance.
“I just keep coming back to, ‘is it worth it?’” the congresswoman said, recalling time spent with a loved one on a ventilator in an intensive care unit (ICU) as a reinforcing memory of what could happen if someone defied the order.
Another caller asked about guidance regarding protective masks and whether healthy individuals should wear them. Melnick said there is still some controversy over their effectiveness. He said issues for healthy individuals using masks are its draw on limited supplies of PPE, adding that social distancing practices were effective for halting transmission.
As of the town hall, Melnick said there were 11 patients at Legacy Salmon Creek, eight at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and two at PeaceHealth St. John in Longview who were hospitalized and had confirmed cases of COVID-19. He said that currently none of those hospitals were at ICU capacity, but conversations were ongoing as to whether or not additional capacity would be needed in the future.
Melnick said Herrera Beutler has been helpful in advocating for more medical supplies in the region, though testing capacity is still tight. He said that capacity restriction has required healthcare professionals to prioritize who needs to be tested, adding that the majority of people who will end up getting COVID-19 would only develop mild symptoms and not require medical care.
Apart from testing capacity, Melnick said those experiencing mild symptoms should stay home rather than head to the hospital for two reasons — to not infect others, and to prevent people who might be sick with another respiratory disease from inadvertently catching COVID-19 from being at a place such as a clinic where by nature there is a higher chance for transmission.
Another caller asked about allocations included in the CARES Act that didn’t seem linked to COVID-19 response relief, naming the $25 million headed to the Kennedy Center for the Arts in
Washington, D.C. Herrera Beutler mentioned she had co-sponsored legislation to claw that money back, explaining her support for the act was on relief as swiftly as possible.
“I don’t even know how people had time to sneak in any other projects, because for my part it was just a race to get the basics in there,” Herrera Beutler said. “Now we have to go back and pull some of that stuff back out.”
A caller asked Herrera Beutler to rate Trump on his COVID-19 response, which the Congresswoman refused to do.
“All I’m interested in is making sure that, for my part, the federal government is responsive (to) serve the state of Washington, and then that the state of Washington is making sure to serve Southwest Washington,” Herrera Beutler said.
Though there will be plenty of time to assess responses when the crisis is over, “when you’re in the middle of a storm and people are on the front lines fighting to protect the lives of others, I don’t think that’s the time to grade people, quite frankly,” she said.
“I think it’s the time to pull together, work hard — not worry about who gets credit — and get things done,” Herrera Beutler said. She mentioned how she has worked with Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal from Seattle in securing Washington support.
“That’s been the one silver lining for all of this, is that the partisanship has started to fall by the wayside,” Herrera Beutler said.