Right now, people across our state and across the country are grappling with the dangers posed by the deadly coronavirus, which has upended our society in every way, from healthcare to social services to the economy. The intensity and breadth of the challenges posed by this virus are unlike anything we have seen in recent memory; we need a response to match the moment.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Last week, Congress passed a sweeping legislative package to help bolster our healthcare system, support workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and extend a lifeline to small businesses who have been hit hard by the steps we need to take to slow the virus’s spread. Some are calling this a stimulus package, but I think it’s more of a buying-time package — a bridge loan to the entire country, to help get us through this rough time to the moment we can put this behind us.
One of the most important pieces of this bill is the critical funding to help our hospitals and healthcare providers tackle this challenge and keep themselves safe. That includes $100 billion to help our hospitals on the front lines of this fight continue to keep up with the surging need to treat coronavirus patients. (By the way — for those troubled by the delay from the two extra days of negotiations, this number is a $55 billion increase from the initial proposal.)
It also includes $16 billion to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile’s lifesaving personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other key medical needs to treat patients and protect our healthcare providers. These men and women are battling every day in dangerous conditions — too often with insufficient supplies; we need to make sure we’re giving them every tool they need to win this fight. The bill will also deliver over a billion dollars directly to the State of Maine so our leaders have the resources to confront this threat in a customized way.
As our medical personnel are working to treat those who become sick, we need to do our part to help them by slowing the spread and flattening the curve. Social distancing will help us get there, and each and every Maine person should be observing these protocols as much as possible. I realize it’s the Maine mentality to come together, lean on each other, and lend a hand to a neighbor — but this vicious pandemic brings a different rule book. This “distancing” has done serious damage to our businesses and economy, though: tens of thousands of Mainers’ find themselves out of work. In the last week, nearly 21,500 Maine people filed for unemployment, by far the highest in our history.
To confront this new economic reality, Congress passed expanded unemployment benefits for the next four months, providing an extra $600 per week to workers who’ve lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, the legislation provides $1,200 direct payments to every American who makes $75,000 or less, and includes an additional $500 for each child. These two measures will make a vital difference for Maine people living paycheck to paycheck.
This economic slowdown is also hitting Maine’s small businesses hard. These businesses are the heartbeat of our economy, and many have either been forced to shut down or have seen their business decline drastically. That’s why this legislation includes $377 billion for America’s small businesses, giving them the support they need to keep their employees and continue to meet their obligations in the face of this unexpected slowdown. The bill also includes the Small Business Debt Relief Act, legislation I cosponsored to create a six-month payment holiday for 1,883 small businesses in Maine that currently hold Small Business Administration loans. This provision, and the massive funding for new grants and loans, will make sure small businesses still will be there when we get through this.
There’s so much more in this legislation that will make a real difference, from LIHEAP to relief for student loan holders. Now, I’m not saying the bill isn’t perfect — no bill ever is, and we’ll have to revisit many challenges in the weeks ahead — and I’ll be the first to say the process was far from ideal. But at the end of the day, the Senate used honest dialogues and mutual respect to reach a compromise, and then voted 96-0 ( unanimously — now that’s pretty rare!) to pass this vital lifeline for the American people.
I think that approach, flawed as it was at times, nicely sums up where we need to be. We can argue — as a community, as a state, as a country — about the right approach, but at the end of the day, we need to come together.
So be safe, be smart, and do your part to flatten the curve. Practice social distancing; stay home if you’re sick; wash your hands for 20 seconds; listen to the Maine CDC. And when all else fails — when it’s hard to see the light at the end of this tunnel — please remember that we will get through this, together.
Angus King represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.