By Pam Zubeck
As the numbers of people stricken with the virus that causes COVID-19 climbed in Colorado and across the country, the U.S. House of Representatives on March 27 approved a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at buoying business and industry, which have laid off millions of Americans due to the virus. President Trump signed the bill the same afternoon.
The legislation is the largest funding package of its kind in U.S. history and was passed on a voice vote. Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado appeared to be the only member of the Colorado delegation to oppose the measure, according to The Denver Post, saying he opposed specific provisions, such as $75 million for public broadcasting, $50 million for museums and libraries, and $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among other things.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told Council via an online meeting that the city is considering several measures to deal with an expected $20 million drop in revenue due to closed businesses and other COVID-19 impacts.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to last,” Suthers said. “Everything’s going to be on the table. Before we get into layoffs, maybe we do an across-the-board wage cut, furloughs, unpaid time off.”
Before going to those extremes, however, Suthers said he already has ordered a ban on travel by city personnel, a hiring freeze and a deferral of major purchases.
That said, Suthers said the city also will be on the receiving end of the stimulus bill, which will allot billions of dollars to states and cities. The downside is that one pot of money, as the U.S. Senate insisted, will be reserved for the nation’s 34 cities of 500,000 population or more, which excludes Colorado Springs, Cleveland, Pittsburg and Miami.
But another pot of cash would direct money to Colorado Springs. Not for lost revenue due to the virus, but rather for expenses associated with the virus. Hence, Suthers says the staff is diligently documenting that, including staff time spent on virus issues.
City economic development official Bob Cope said several agencies, including the Downtown Partnership, the city and the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, are compiling several relief programs for local small businesses. One program will provide loans up to $25,000. He didn’t mention a total amount that would be available.
“We do think that’s going to make a significant difference and enable them to be up and running once we’re given the go-ahead to do so,” Cope said.
Suthers also said, based on his meeting with 350 mayors across the country online, there could be yet another federal funding bill coming that would provide aid to local governments.
As for the newest federal funding bill approved March 27, it’s been hailed by many as the cure for the economy, which is ailing after stay-at-home and social distancing orders caused thousands of businesses to shut down or modify how they deliver goods and services.
But the measure was termed “entirely unworkable” by Hunter Railey, Colorado director for the Small Business Majority.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on Colorado’s small business community. Businesses from every corner of the state in nearly every industry have had to close their doors and been forced through no fault of their own to lay off staff,” Railey said in a release. “Unemployment claims in Colorado topped over 300,000 in one week since the pandemic started.”
Railey also said businesses need direct assistance, not more debt.
“For the past two weeks, we have pressed lawmakers to craft a stimulus package that gives business owners the help they desperately need. However, our calls have fallen on deaf ears. [The bill] provides $350 billion in loans that could be forgiven for some businesses in the future, but the fact of the matter is, for the small businesses that are the heart of our communities this legislation is entirely unworkable.”
Meantime, on March 27, the state reported data as of March 26: The state has seen 31 deaths (7 in El Paso County), an uptick from 24, and 1,734 cases (160 in El Paso County), a sharp rise from 1,430 the day before (137 in El Paso County). The virus has shown up in 42 counties in the state, and 11,676 people have been tested, up from 10,122 the day before.
Traci Marques, the Pikes Peak Workforce Center’s CEO, tells the Indy by phone that staff is scrambling to line up programs for unemployed workers and businesses needing to hire. She says 97 companies, from health care to call centers, are currently hiring.
“We’re taking job postings that are for current, active, open positions and what the company deems is necessary,” Marques said. “Most of these are stay-at-home jobs, and some of those would change when orders change or several months down the road.”
The PPWC receives up to 130 phone calls per day from people asking questions about job openings and how to file for unemployment. “We anticipate that it’s only going to get worse,” she said. “We’re really talking people off the ledge due to frustrations they’re seeing with the state system.” (So many filed for unemployment in one day recently that it crashed the state’s system.)
The PPWFC can’t put money directly into the pockets of workers but can spend on items that enable them to report to a job, such as job training and even certain required clothing like work boots, bus passes or laptops.
Marques said the center is looking for ways to cut red tape imposed by federal regulations that would loosen up what the agency can and cannot do to help workers. Also, the latest relief bill didn’t contain as much money for agencies like the PPWC as hoped, so she hopes to see additional federal allocations in the future.
Those businesses who are hiring can go https://ppwfc.org/covid-19-resources/ for information on listing those jobs.
In other developments:
• Medical personnel from the 627th Hospital Center at Fort Carson left Colorado Springs on March 27 for Washington state, where soldiers will provide supplemental routine and emergency medical support to communities and medical staff near Seattle.
• Gov. Polis issued further orders on March 26 to extend certain licenses. Read more here. He also issued an order regarding the criminal justice system, which will have the effect of reducing the number of prisoners held by the Department of Corrections.
• The Department of Labor on Thursday released the worst jobless-benefits report in history. The U.S. saw nearly 3.3 million new claims for the week ended March 21, nearly five times the previous record of 695,000 claims filed in the week ended Oct. 2, 1982.
• On March 26, the Colorado State Emergency Operations Center and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment began distributing 4,500 testing kits obtained from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to health departments in Larimer, Mesa, and El Paso counties so that those agencies can promote testing of first responders and health care workers. Only symptomatic workers will be tested to verify their exposure and allow those with negative results to continue providing medical care and public safety services. Those with positive results will complete self-isolation following public health guidelines.
• Drives to collect personal protective equipment, including eye protection and goggles, face shields, surgical masks, sterile and nonsterile gloves, disposable gowns, N95 masks, sanitation wipes and personal wipes:
—UCCS Health Lane Center parking lot, 4863 N. Nevada Ave., noon Saturday, March 28.
—The Rocky Mountain Vibes’ UCHealth Park, 4385 Tutt Blvd., noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, March 29.
• VisitCOS has launched a hub of updates and resources to help people understand the rules and follow them and know what’s open and what’s not. President and CEO Doug Price urged residents to follow recommended health practices to speed a return to normal.
• Thirty-nine percent of contractors report that project owners have halted or canceled current construction projects amid deteriorating economic conditions, according to a survey released March 27 by the Associated General Contractors of America. It warned that cancellations mean “massive job losses” unless Congress passes targeted recovery measures to boost infrastructure funding, compensate firms for lost or delayed federally funded work and provide needed pension relief.
• The Independence Center reminds its clients that while its physical offices are closed, staff answers calls to 719-471-8181 and corresponds via email.
• The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum announced it would postpone the grand opening slated for the end of May. The museum’s officials said in a statement it “continues to monitor the global and local impact of COVID-19 on a daily basis. While our team continues its effort to open the Museum as soon as possible, we acknowledge that the situation is constantly evolving. The health and safety of our visitors, staff, and community is a priority, and we will continue to listen carefully to health experts and community leaders.”
• Douglas Bruce, the author of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and government critic, invited anyone who wants to risk their health to meet him at the Firefighters’ Memorial in Colorado Springs’ Memorial Park at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 29. He invited Mayor Suthers “to come arrest me for peaceably assembling with my fellow Americans” and asserted that the coronavirus is a “phony emergency.” Many Republicans, including state legislators, have expressed opposition to the governor’s stay-at-home orders, which are designed to curtail spread of the virus.
• More than a week after the coronavirus triggered advisories from state and local authorities, El Paso County and the city of Colorado Springs stood up a Joint Information Center (JIC) on March 27, days after the city and county of Denver did the same. The JIC’s daily reports will highlight recent developments.