The world changed in weeks.
A month ago, the coronavirus was a looming threat but debate raged about how seriously the threat should be taken. After all, other viruses had come and gone barely reaching American shores or threatening American lives.
Economic indicators remained high. It was business as usual until it wasn’t.
The virus got a toehold in the U.S. and exploded, catching the U.S. underprepared. In a matter of days the stock market started hemorrhaging, and thousands, then hundreds of thousands of Americans were affected. The economy came to a screeching halt as social distancing went from a recommendation to a mandate in many communities and some states.
Suddenly, the United States was facing an unprecedented healthcare crisis and an unprecedented economic crisis all at once.
“We really haven’t faced anything like this since the 1918 flu epidemic 100 years ago,” said U.S Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City.
To face an unprecedented problem, the federal government offered an unprecedented solution, a $2.2 trillion stimulus package designed to save families, businesses and provide a massive infusion of equipment and support to a healthcare industry under siege without enough supplies.
“This pandemic is affecting Americans across the country in every way possible – emotionally, physically and financially,” said Roe. “I strongly support the CARES Act to help Americans struggling because of the unprecedented response we are undertaking to stop the spread of this deadly virus. This is not a typical economic recovery package because never before has our country shut down our economy intentionally. I am grateful for President Trump’s leadership and the work of the brave men and women in our public health community working around the clock to keep Americans safe. East Tennesseans should know their government will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure we restart and rebuild our economy as quickly as possible. This package is a major step in that direction. I hope it gives everyone the peace of mind that they can afford to stay safe during this critical period of social distancing and isolation, and help us in our effort to defeat this terrible threat to public health.”
Among the major provisions of the CARES Act are:
• A $1,200/$2,400 stimulus for individuals/couples making under $75,000/$150,000. Families who qualify with dependent children will receive $500 per child. The checks phase out completely at $99,000/$198,000.
• $529 billion in loans, loan guarantees, and investment authority, including $454 billion for all sectors of the economy and $75 billion specifically for airlines, cargo carriers and businesses critical to national security.
• $350 billion for a new SBA-backed loan program to help small businesses and 501(c)3 nonprofits under 500 employees pay for expenses, including payroll. The loan program will be available quickly through private lenders. Up to 8 weeks of cash flow, rent, and utilities under the loan may be forgiven.
• $340 billion in direct funding to combat the pandemic, including $150 billion for states and local governments and $140 billion for healthcare providers to ensure there are appropriate and necessary resources available for individuals affected during this crisis.
• $250 billion for the expansion of unemployment benefits to ensure all Americans have the resources necessary to weather this crisis, including self-employed workers, independent contractors, and those who had exhausted benefits who were previously ineligible.
• Specifically includes the Commission on U.S. Medical Security Act, which Dr. Roe is the lead cosponsor of in the House, to analyze U.S. dependence on critical drugs and medical devices that are sourced or manufactured outside of the U.S., and it requires HHS to develop an action plan around increasing domestic manufacturing capabilities of medical equipment and treatments.
Roe said one of the reasons he so enthusiastically supported the CARES Act was that the purposeful shutting down of the economy was done for the greater good. In order to stem the spread of the virus, the United States needs its people to stay home. Roe said he doesn’t want people hurt by doing the right thing.
Roe said the federal government has moved about as swiftly as it can to meet the crisis. He pointed to a phone call he got from the Carter County mayor. When schools there let out, some kids in rural areas couldn’t get to a school to pick up meals and were faced with going hungry. There’s a law that closed schools can serve meals but only at a school facility. Roe made a call to the USDA and in two hours, the problem was fixed and exemptions were granted nation-wide.
That’s just a small example but the unfathomable size and scope of the bill is unprecedented, reaching across several disciplines. There’s money for those who receive public assistance, for small businesses and for massive corporations. There’s funding to ramp up efforts to meet the massive gap in personal protection equipment for medical workers and to provide beds and ventilators to hospitals that are woefully under equipped to meet this specific crisis.
There are sections of the bill dedicated to the Veterans Affairs hospitals and to pay for giant military ships to serve as floating hospitals for areas overrun by the virus. There’s money for airlines whose business has all but disappeared. There’s funding for vaccine testing and rollout.
“This is a very complicated bill,” Roe said.
Restaurants, stores and other businesses across the nation have shuttered over the last two weeks. The nation has seen a massive rise in unemployment due to closed businesses and layoffs.
Getting funding to small businesses affected by the crisis was one of the main goals of the CARES Act, Roe said.
“Small business, that’s the backbone of this country and overnight, they just closed,” Roe said.
Enter the Paycheck Protection Program which provides $350 billion for 100 percent federally-guaranteed loans for eight weeks of assistance to small businesses, non-profits and veterans organizations.
The loans can be forgiven when used for payroll, interest on mortgage obligations, rent and utilities. The loans will be issued through local lenders who will be delegated authority which allows lenders to process the loans without Small Business Administration approval.
“You go down to the banker you’ve been doing business with, not the SBA,” Roe said. “We want you to go to your local banker and you show them your payroll, your rent ... and you get a loan. The only requirement on these loans is they have to have been in business before February 15 and they need to show that their economic business was harmed by coronavirus.”
“The capital requirements have been loosened, they’ve made it easier and the banks and credit unions will do well with the loans.”
The maximum on the SBA express loans, which require less documentation and paperwork, has been increased from $350,000 to a million dollars. There’s a six –month deferral of payments as well as a deferment of payroll taxes.
Employers who have laid off workers are required to call them back, reaching a 90% workforce retainment threshold, which means businesses will be able to continue to pay workers even if they keep them home for social distancing.
“We would rather have you working and getting a paycheck than getting unemployment,” Roe said. “They bring those folks back and keep them on the payroll, that’s huge.”
Roe praised President Donald Trump’s leadership in getting the act passed.
“We’re going to get back. We’re lucky to have a businessman who understands if we get businesses going it will help everything,” Roe said. “We want to get businesses back as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.”
Roe had to fly to Washington this week for the vote and, he said, during his return through Atlanta, the only people he saw were the workers paid to be there.
“I flew four days after 9/11 and it looked like that,” he said. “Unbelievable - just a long hallway with almost nobody in it.”
Roe said the bill includes $529 billion for airlines and regional airports.
“We know the airlines are bleeding money,” he said, noting the number of flights may be cut by 80 percent next month. “You don’t realize how connected air travel is to everything else.”
Roe believes the United States is now on the right path to beating the virus through social distancing and improved testing. He stressed the importance of continuing to be cautious.
“How do we whip the pandemic?” he said. “We’ll do exactly what we did with Polio and Ebola, measles and so on. Americans are going to step up and we’re going to figure it out.”
He noted several vaccines are in Phase I trials and will soon be moving to Phase II. He noted the government is investing in gearing up industries to meet the medical supply needs.
“And we’ve put a lot of money into research,” Roe said.
What went wrong?
Roe said the lack of available tests at the outset of the pandemic’s arrival in the United States was a major blow. Roe said the belief that the virus – like other pandemics – would fall short of American shores may have factored in, but, he said, many believed a pandemic could and, eventually would happen here.
Roe said doctors needed a way to tests patients who may have been exposed.
“We didn’t have that,” he said. “We’re getting there now. We’re really ramping that up.”
Roe said East Tennessee has an advantage in that it’s easier to spread out and isolate than it is in big cities with mass transportation. Roe praised entities like the NCAA, NBA and Major League Baseball for cancelling games. He also praised Dollywood for closing down but said he wished other events had done the same. He pointed to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Chinese New Year in New York and said there’s a correlation to the outbreak going on in those cities now.
But, he added, a major city where the majority of people move via mass transportation is a bad place to be during a pandemic.
“Subways, in a global pandemic, are bad,” he said.
Roe also said he wishes the government had stopped travel from Europe sooner.
Roe said the federal government will go into a wait and see mode. It’s possible another round of stimulus will be necessary but he’s hopeful that with improved testing, equipment and proper social distancing, the rising cases of coronavirus will crest. He remains hopeful that the summer will see something of a return to normalcy.
The American spirit, he said, will ultimately win.
“I met a nurse in Atlanta, she was on her way to New York to help,” Roe said. “I can’t say thank you enough out there to my colleagues and friends, doctors and nurses, who are on the front lines fighting this thing.”