PORTLAND — Oregon’s U.S. senators hailed Wednesday’s passage of a $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package, even as they hunkered down in their offices to ride out the outbreak.
“This is really a right hook, left punch situation in which people are hit both on the health anxiety, which is certainly well placed given the potential lethality, and on the economic side,” U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said on Wednesday.
Since he sent all of his staff home, Merkley moved a toaster onto his desk along with the stacks of memos to brief him for endless calls and meetings about coronavirus response.
Alone all day, he is surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
His fellow U.S. Senator from Oregon, Ron Wyden, is also in Washington. “My hands feel like sandpaper because you’re washing your hands all the time,” Wyden said.
The two Democrats are living the crisis even as Congress makes a down payment on digging the country out from the catastrophe. Last week, 3.3 million people across the country filed for unemployment claims — quadruple the prior record — as businesses across the country closed and people huddled in their homes to avoid spreading the virus.
Gov. Kate Brown said Wednesday she expects the federal rescue package, which awaits passage in the House and President Donald Trump’s signature, will bring at least $1.2 billion to Oregonians and to the state. The bill is designed as a lifeline for businesses and laid-off workers facing weeks or months of hardship before the outbreak passes and they can return to work.
The bill’s highlights include:
• Up to $600 more per week in unemployment benefits, plus expanding unemployment insurance to part-time and self-employed workers who aren’t usually covered by the program.
• One-time checks of $1,200 per adult, and $500 per kid for individuals earning less than $75,000 annually. People earning more than that will receive less — and those with incomes about $99,000 for an individual or $198,000 for couples won’t receive payments.
• $150 billion for state social services.
• $350 billion in loans to small businesses, which can turn into outright grants.
• $425 billion in loans for large, distressed industries.
“This horrendous disease that has just been punishing Oregon families and every nook and cranny in the state has also hit the Oregon economy like a wrecking ball,” Wyden said on Wednesday. If working Oregonians can’t pay their bills, he said, that will have ripple effects throughout the state.
“When they’re not able to pay that makes it hard for businesses to keep their doors open,” Wyden said. “Demand drives the Oregon economy.”
Merkley pushed hard for a $40 billion housing assistance package and is disappointed that only $7 billion survived. He also wanted a nationwide ban on evictions, which hasn’t come through.
Instead, state and local jurisdictions, including Oregon and Portland, have implemented their own moratoriums on evictions, which vary in who is protected and for how long.
Merkley is concerned about unemployment skyrocketing at the same time many people are saddled with too-high rents to start with.
“We were already looking at such a challenging housing situation across the country,” Merkley said. “We should absolutely be doing a lot more.”
Some of the $7 billion will be used to try to prevent the outbreak from disproportionately impacting homeless people. It will be disbursed to states and counties based on how many people are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Merkley is confident Oregon will get a large chunk of it.
Among other things, it will be used to temporarily house people living outside in shelters like the ones the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services have opened in Multnomah County.
Tribal governments would also be eligible for stabilization funds — a growing concern in Indian Country, where unemployment is high in regular economic times and the few health resources normally available have already been stretched to the breaking point.
Despite the record-breaking size of this week’s rescue package, there is broad agreement among economists and by many in Congress that it is only a first step in the recovery process. Wyden predicted additional legislation will focus on the crisis’ implications for medical care.
“I’m staying at my post and am convinced that this is not going to be the end,” Wyden said. “We’ve got a whole host of issues with respect to health care where we very much need the additional services.”