By Faith Miller
The U.S. Senate voted March 18 to approve legislation granting financial support for individuals, families and businesses impacted by the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
The act, signed by President Donald Trump on March 19, provides new funding for nutrition assistance, medical care and paid leave related to COVID-19.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act will designate an additional $500 million for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and $400 million for emergency food assistance. It will allow state agencies to develop plans that would supply free meals for kids whose school districts have closed and designate $250 million for aging and disability services, including home-delivered meals.
The legislation also designates $1 billion for reimbursing health care providers for services related to COVID-19, including testing and office visits, and provides additional unemployment assistance funding for states to distribute.
It also requires paid leave for some people affected by the pandemic, though certain exemptions apply based on company size (and if your company already provides paid leave, this may not apply).
Significantly, the Families First Act requires employers to provide family leave for employees impacted by COVID-19, with some caveats: People receiving paid leave due to the need to care for a child (including due to a school closure) must have been employed at their company for at least 30 days. Businesses with more than 500 employees or fewer than 50 employees can be exempted from this requirement. The first 10 days of such leave can be unpaid — after that, employees must be paid at least two-thirds of their salary but aren’t required to be paid more than $200 per day.
The Families First Act also requires paid sick leave for employees impacted by COVID-19, who can qualify if they are sick or have been advised to self-quarantine. Full-time employees get 80 hours of paid sick time, and part-time employees get paid sick time equal to the number of hours they’d work over two weeks. The amount of leave is the same as regular pay (up to $511 a day). Businesses with more than 500 employees are exempt from this requirement.
The Senate voted 90-8 in favor of the Families First Act, with Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet voting in favor. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner did not vote, as he self-quarantined after learning that a constituent who visited his Washington office has tested positive for COVID-19.
In the House, most of Colorado’s delegation voted in favor of the bill, including Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, voted against it.
The White House has also proposed a $1 trillion spending plan in response to COVID-19 that would include $500 billion in direct payments to Americans. The plan would need approval from both the House and Senate.
ABC News reports that the payments, according to a proposal from the U.S. Treasury, would be distributed to all U.S. taxpayers in two rounds: the first beginning April 6, and the second May 18. The payment amounts would be tiered based on income and household size.
As of March 19, more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19 and 150 deaths had occurred in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was reporting 216 cases and two deaths, both in El Paso County, which has had eight cases.
States across the country are encountering a backlog of tests that means many people who have the virus are yet to be counted in official totals.
“The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is pursuing a strategic approach to testing in the state to steward our state and country’s scarce resources in the face of widespread community transmission of COVID-19 in Colorado,” the Colorado health department said in a March 18 statement.
“CDPHE is sending testing resources to specific communities that have not yet had testing that will yield vital information about how the disease is spreading.”
On March 19, the department planned to set up a testing site in Pueblo that will only serve “high-risk patients who have been pre-selected by area health care providers” — not walk-up or drive-up patients.
No matter if they’ve been tested, CDPHE urges people to isolate themselves if they are experiencing any potential symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough and shortness of breath.
This tool from ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, provides a sobering look at how the spread of the virus could overwhelm U.S. hospitals depending on what percentage of the population contracts COVID-19, and how quickly the virus spreads. It’s based on estimates from the Harvard Global Health Institute.
In a best-case scenario — 20 percent of the U.S. population becomes infected over 18 months — the researchers involved in developing the tool say that the country’s existing hospital beds would be about 95 percent full.
In the Colorado Springs hospital region, the ProPublica tool shows a shortage of beds in every scenario. A moderate scenario — 40 percent of people infected over 12 months — would mean the Colorado Springs area needs twice the number of hospital beds currently available.
Separate emergency declarations by Gov. Jared Polis, El Paso County Chair Mark Waller, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and President Donald Trump should free up funding for employees, businesses and families with children who’ve been affected by the coronavirus.
What exactly do the declarations mean?
This article by Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center, provides some insight into Trump’s emergency declaration, issued March 13.
The Denver Post boiled down Polis’ emergency powers under the statewide declaration issued March 11 in this article.
Waller’s local disaster emergency declaration allows El Paso County to activate the Medical Reserve Corp., a network of volunteers. The declaration will also help providers obtain personal protective equipment, Waller said in a March 14 statement.
Suthers’ emergency declaration, issued March 16, makes the city eligible for federal relief funding and gives the mayor more authority to take actions in response to the pandemic.
Other mayors have used emergency powers to close businesses, issue “shelter in place” orders, and freeze evictions, though Suthers hasn’t yet taken such actions — the order to close restaurants, gyms, casinos, theaters, coffeehouses, cigar bars, brewpubs and distillery pubs came from Polis on March 16.
This is all the city code says about emergency response powers: