U.S. Senator Tina Smith Coronavirus Update
July 30, 2020
For more than five months, Minnesota and the nation have faced an unprecedented health and economic crisis as the coronavirus pandemic has devastated families and communities, stolen businesses and jobs, and taken more than 150,000 lives across the country.
As relief measures designed to get families, workers, small businesses and local non-profits through this crisis run out at the end of July, I am continuing my urgent push for more bipartisan action in Congress to help ensure Americans remain safe and healthy, and to help them deal with the ongoing economic fallout. I'm also pushing to address the inequities that have emerged during the pandemic that show that communities of color, Tribal communities, and low-wage families have been hit hardest by the virus.
For several weeks, I've been pressing the President and Senate leaders - who have been far too slow to respond in the face of an expanding pandemic - to quickly get to work on further relief for families, small businesses, and health providers in Minnesota and across the nation. As these negotiations finally get off the ground, I'll keep you informed of my progress.
-U.S. Senator Tina Smith
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The Nation's Coronavirus Response So Far
Earlier this year - as the breadth and seriousness of the pandemic began to grow - I supported four separate bipartisan funding packages to respond. Those measures have targeted trillions of dollars in urgently-needed relief - first to hospitals and health care workers to help them deal with the surge in infected patients - and then to the millions of hard-hit small businesses, families, and workers to help keep them afloat as we battle this pandemic.
When the President signed those measures into law, they included my provision to make diagnostic coronavirus testing free. Cost should never be a barrier for people getting the health care they need. The President also signed into law key parts of my bipartisan legislation to help prevent drug shortages by improving reporting of potential shortfalls so we can ensure that important drugs remain available during this pandemic and beyond.
While these ongoing efforts have been far from perfect, they have had a positive impact. Minnesota families received relief checks. Workers who have lost jobs are receiving expanded unemployment benefits; and, more than 98,000 Minnesota small businesses have received $11.2 billion in forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to keep workers on payroll. Businesses have also received $1.8 billion in low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) to help those harmed by the virus to survive. Our nation's hard-hit Tribal governments also received $8 billion in much-needed relief to recover from the economic fallout and to cover health care needs.
Urgent Need to Continue Relief
In recent weeks, as I've been able to once again travel to communities around the state and hold safe, socially-distant meetings with families, main-street business owners, farmers and community leaders, Minnesotans have told me that those relief measures have thrown them a needed lifeline to get them through this crisis.
Unfortunately, many relief measures are set to expire at the end of July. While the U.S. House passed an additional major relief package back in May, the Senate has yet to act and has lacked the sense of urgency I feel we must have to ensure Minnesotans continue to have that lifeline.
As the seriousness of the pandemic has increased in recent weeks, I, along with many of my Senate colleagues, have pushed hard for further bipartisan relief. Without it, millions of Americans - especially those who have already been hurt by the racial and economic inequities in our country - are at further risk of losing not only their health, but also their housing, their businesses and their jobs.
Keeping America Healthy During a Pandemic
Throughout this pandemic, one of my top priorities has been to ensure Americans remain safe and have access to the health care they need. I'll continue to press many efforts do that as we move forward with further coronavirus relief.
Testing is key: When I've met with Minnesotans in recent weeks, many expressed deep concern over coronavirus testing. From not having tests available, to having to wait far too long for results, they share my deep frustration that the Administration has not marshaled the full resources of the federal government behind an effective testing and contact-tracing strategy, especially in communities of color and other places that have been hardest hit by the virus.
As we've seen the virus spike in states across the country, Minnesotans understand that we won't be able to get back to normal and fully and safely open our businesses and schools until we can contain and suppress the virus. While my provision to make testing free for everyone is now law, I've also led the push in the Senate to develop a comprehensive national testing strategy. It's stunning that we don't have one in place after all these months, and it's urgent that we invest the needed resources to develop one.
I am pushing a bipartisan measure with Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana to target a total of $50 billion to develop and implement a long-overdue national testing and contract-tracing plan. About half the funds would be targeted to help states band together with other states in their regions to procure the coronavirus tests and testing supplies they need. These interstate compacts would give states the market power and leverage to obtain enough tests to ensure their labs function at full capacity and to bring more types of tests to market. The bill also directs the federal government to develop a strategy to provide guidance to states and help coordinate testing activities. The legislation would also invest in thousands of contact tracing personnel, technology modernization, and help tribal and local health officials deal with the virus.
Developing Safe Vaccines for Everyone: There is now a massive and exciting public-private push to develop a coronavirus vaccine. I am hopeful that we can produce a safe, reliable vaccine as soon as possible, but health experts have urged that we be realistic about how quickly we can do that. When an effective vaccine emerges, I will push to ensure everyone has access to it, not just those who can afford it. American taxpayers have already invested billions of dollars in developing vaccines, and they shouldn't have to pay for them twice.
Telehealth and broadband: I've worked hard to secure millions in grants to expand telehealth, especially for mental health care, during the pandemic. Now I'm working so that innovations in telehealth can continue when this emergency is over. And, I won't stop until broadband technology is available to everyone, in rural and urban communities alike.
Extending Direct Help for Families and Individuals
During the pandemic, Minnesota families and individuals have been rocked by job losses, worries about paying their rent or mortgage, and keeping food on the table. Millions of people who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus have been sustained by the one-time direct payments and the $600-per-week enhanced Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits that passed as part of the major stimulus bill Congress enacted this spring.
The number of people out of work in our state is stunning. According to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove, half of African American workers and 40 percent of Native Americans in the labor force have applied for Unemployment Insurance. About 20 percent of white Minnesotans have done so.
If Congress doesn't act with needed urgency to extend UI benefits, it's estimated that the 30 million Americans will lose 60 percent of their income overnight. On housing, the situation is also urgent: One-third of Americans were unable to make their full housing payment in July. The enhanced benefits that Minnesota families have received are not only important to keeping them afloat, but they have kept millions out of poverty, prevented the recession from becoming a depression and stopped our overall economy from falling off a cliff and hurting even more people.
As part of my push to help Minnesota families in the next relief package, I'm going fight to ensure that investments in necessities like housing and child care are part of the next relief package.
Early this year, I released my "Without Housing, Nothing Else Works" statewide housing report, which included findings from my conversations with hundreds of Minnesotans about the challenges of our housing shortage. Virtually every Minnesota community has a shortage of quality, affordable, which hurts families and businesses and constrains job creation and economic growth. The pandemic has magnified these housing challenges, leaving families struggling to make their housing payments. I'm working to get relief in the next round of COVID-19 legislation to head off unneeded evictions and keep people in their homes.
This pandemic also has been a huge challenge for childcare providers, especially small family providers. This is an economic as well as a moral issue. If families don't have access to high-quality childcare that they can afford, nothing else works. After listening to Minnesota providers about the problems they face, I'm working with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on a measure to stabilize and strengthen childcare across the country and to help with the extra costs of operating during the crisis.
I'm also pressing to fix an omission in the previous stimulus package so that dependents 17 and older count toward what a family gets in direct relief payments. The CARES Act, passed in late March, did not allow direct payments for dependents older than 16, which meant 17- and 18-year-olds, college students, and other dependent adults, such as a disabled parent cared for by the taxpayer were excluded from receiving important relief. This was unfair to thousands of families in Minnesota and across the country, and I'm pushing to get my legislative fix included in the next package so that going forward all dependents are eligible for relief.
Relief for Small Businesses and Local Non-Profits
As I've talked to businesses throughout this pandemic, many have told me what a lifeline the forgivable PPP loans, and the emergency EIDL loans have been in helping them keep employees on the payroll and get through these tough times. But I've also heard that more support is needed, and I've heard frustrations from some small business owners that the program rules been confusing and difficult to navigate, especially for really small businesses that haven't been able to tap into this funding.
As we negotiate the next package, I will push for a new round of forgivable PPP loans for the hardest-hit businesses, and for long-term, low-interest disaster loans that help the small businesses and local non-profits that need them get back on their feet and stay there.
In addition, because rural hospitals are vital to public health during this pandemic, I've joined forces with Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi to push to include rural hospitals in the PPP. Our bipartisan measure would waive current Small Business Administration rules for non-profit critical access hospitals that serve rural areas so that they may qualify for PPP loans. It would allow facilities to retain critical staff and focus their resources on providing quality care to patients for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
Helping Farmers Get Through the Crisis
Prior to the pandemic, farmers in Minnesota and across the country had already been reeling from years of low prices, trade disruptions and weather disasters. The pandemic has only made things more challenging in the farm economy, and across rural America.
In response, I'm pressing to help Minnesota producers who have seen markets dry up during this pandemic.
Dairy loans: I will soon introduce a bill that would create USDA-backed loans to help hard-hit dairy processors. These loans would help ensure the dairy market remains open for our producers.
Help for pork producers: I am pushing Senate leaders and top Senators on the Agriculture Committee to help pork producers who have had to put down much of their herds after the pandemic took away their markets. My plan would reimburse producers for 85 percent of their losses and help get them back on their feet.
Relief for independent turkey producers: Minnesota leads the nation in turkey production, so our economy has a stake in helping them during this pandemic. I have introduced legislation to help Independent turkey farmers who were left out of past relief packages. My bill would change this by forcing USDA to include qualified turkey producers in future relief packages.
Information for Minnesotans on Coronavirus
Throughout this crisis, my top priority has been the health and safety of Minnesotans, and ensuring they are getting accurate information to deal with this crisis. You can turn to the Minnesota Department of Health, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for up-to-date, accurate information on Preventing COVID-19. These resources provide information on keeping families in our state safe, and include official guidance for Minnesotans who think they may need to be tested for the virus.
In the News: Senator Smith’s Work on COVID-19
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Marshall Independent: Smith seeks support for rural health during virus pandemic
FOX9 News: Sen. Smith meets St. Paul business owners impacted by COVID-19, unrest
St. Cloud Times: Sen. Tina Smith talks affordable housing in St. Cloud
WDIO TV: Sen. Tina Smith intros bills focused on expanding mental health, telehealth