Our necessary response to fight the spread of the highly-contagious—and sometimes lethal— coronavirus has saved lives, but it has also severely affected livelihoods. Over the last month, over 22 million workers have filed for unemployment nationwide. Between the beginning and the end of March, Congress responded in a bipartisan way with three major legislative measures. The third measure—the $2 trillion CARES Act—included vital aid such as direct economic impact payments to individuals and families and over $350 billion in loan programs for small businesses to encourage them to keep employees on the payroll. The Small Business Administration (SBA) provided guidance to borrowers and lenders for both low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and the loan-forgiveness Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
The PPP effort got off to a rocky start. But as of last week, Utah businesses had applied for and received over $3.6 billion in loans to cover payroll and other essential expenses. This economic lifeline is designed to keep relief flowing to small business affected by shutdown requirements due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Gary Cohn, the former chief economic advisor to President Trump, called the PPP loans the most important response by Congress to date.
When the SBA announced that the fund was depleted—leaving many small businesses empty-handed—I called for immediate action to replenish it and stop the economic pain to Utah businesses. I have no patience for Members of Congress trying to push forward their agenda on unrelated issues. I supported a compromise put forward by Democrats and Republicans that would include some additional funding for hospitals, but the centerpiece of this new deal is $310 billion to replenish the emergency PPP and $60 billion for the SBA’s EIDL fund. The Senate approved the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act of 2020 on Tuesday. I will be returning to Washington to vote for it in the House.
After being released from an 8-day hospital stay for COVID-19, I’ve held daily “virtual” meetings with many small business owners, lenders and Utah families. All are worried sick about how they’re going to pay their bills and financially survive this crisis. In Utah, we have seen record-breaking need for the emergency aid and the uncertainty about whether funds would be available by the time an application is processed adds additional and unwarranted stress.
Hospitals are also suffering, as the coronavirus outbreak has forced them to postpone non-essential procedures and care, so that they have all available hands on deck if a surge of very sick patients winds up in the intensive care unit. The compromise I support and will vote for provides another $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for testing. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently incentivized labs to hire more lab technicians to operate test processing equipment and produce more test results. Some experts have said the country must increase testing rates to 1 million a day; currently it’s about 120,000 tests a day.
As important as it is for Utahns to get back to work, Utah leaders have wisely called for moving cautiously and following the best available data. People won’t have confidence in returning until they know we have a plan to keep the spread of the infection in check and that our health care system won’t be overwhelmed. The coronavirus will be part of our communities until there is a vaccine, which experts say is probably 18 months away. We may have some effective drug treatments by then as well. For now, we must continue what is working, such as social distancing, hygiene, disinfecting surfaces and protecting the very vulnerable. In the meantime, we must provide critical support, including expanded funding for the PPP loans to Utah small businesses—the lifeblood of our economy and the engine driving a return to prosperity.
One positive sign is news from the Utah Department of Workforce Services that 70 percent of Utahns receiving unemployment are “job-attached”—that is, they are furloughed with the intent by employers to bring them back when the stay-at-home order ends. The status is updated weekly and it could drop as the shuttered economy persists. But the PPP funding is a critical supplementary source of revenue for businesses, employees and the state, as it provides a paycheck and is helping preserve Utah’s unemployment trust fund.
Utahns always rise above challenges. This time is no different. Recovery will happen as we move forward together to protect each other’s health and well-being and restore economic opportunity.
U.S. Representative Ben McAdams represents Utah’s 4th Congressional District.