UMATILLA COUNTY — The COVID-19 outbreak has hurt businesses and put some Oregonians in a precarious financial situation, but some relief is on the way.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, held a conference call with Oregon media on Wednesday morning shortly after voting to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to help deal with what he described as “a complete implosion of the economy.”

“This is just having a tremendous impact on the economy,” he said.

Among the provisions highlighted by Merkley are free testing for COVID-19; funding to strengthen nutrition assistance for low-income mothers, children and seniors; an emergency paid leave program to cover workers taking time off to recover from COVID-19 or be quarantined for it; funding to states to shore up their unemployment insurance programs and additional funding for Medicaid.

The act follows an $8.3 billion funding package passed March 6 that went to federal, state and county health departments to increase testing, containment and treatment of the virus and put aside money for when a cure or vaccine is ready to be purchased. Merkley noted the health care side is becoming increasingly important, as U.S. cases have reached over 7,000 now, with more than 100 deaths.

Merkley said there are other stimulus bills in the works that could form a package as large as $1 trillion. There are two basic approaches that could be taken, he said — focusing on direct relief for families and small businesses, or help for corporations that employ large numbers of Americans.

“It should be a ‘workers first’ strategy,” Merkley said. “We want to make sure (corporations) are not using this for stock buybacks or bonuses.”

While a proposed $1,000 cash payment for every American could be part of the discussion for short-term relief, he said, the types of bills that protect Americans from foreclosure, help them pay medical bills and increase unemployment insurance would help more.

“That’s not targeted to people who need it the most,” he said in response to a question about direct payments. “There’s no reason we should be sending a $1,000 check to Warren Buffett.”

The continuous announcements about new preventative measures for COVID-19 have been a whirlwind for businesses in Oregon.

Hermiston Chamber of Commerce CEO Kimberly Nevil said the chamber has been focused on helping all businesses in town get the accurate, up-to-date information “quickly and seamlessly” to help them navigate the crisis.

The chamber is sending out regular emails and posting information to its Facebook page, and Nevil said she has been fielding phone calls from local business owners who have questions about what new rules mean for them.

“It has been challenging, but it’s also been neat to see the way the community has pulled together,” she said.

Umatilla County is now on the list of counties where small businesses can receive a low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration for damages to their business from COVID-19. The other Oregon counties that currently qualify are Morrow, Sherman, Gilliam, Hood River and Wasco.

Businesses in those counties can apply for a loan of up to $2 million, with a 3.75% interest rate for businesses and a 2.75% interest rate for nonprofits, that could be repaid over as long as 30 years. The money can be used to cover fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid during the crisis, according to the Small Business Administration’s website at SBA.gov/disaster.

Employers or employees in Oregon who have questions relating to COVID-19 and how it affects unemployment benefits can visit www.oregon.gov/employ/Pages/COVID-19.aspx or email the Oregon Employment Department at OED_COVID19_Info@oregon.gov.

The department reported on Wednesday evening that the number of initial unemployment insurance claims filed in Oregon rose from approximately 800 on Sunday to a total of 18,500 on Tuesday.

According to the department’s guidance, those who have been permanently laid off because of COVID-19 can receive unemployment insurance benefits if they are willing to work, able to work and looking for work. For those who have been temporarily stopped from working but expect to be back in four weeks or less — for example, those whose restaurant was temporarily closed by Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order — unemployment benefits can be available during those weeks if the employee stays in touch with their employer and is willing and able to be called back to work when needed.

Those who are unemployed and are not able to work because they are sick with COVID-19 or quarantined, however, are generally not eligible.

“If you are sick due to the coronavirus, you are likely not able and available to work, which would mean you cannot receive unemployment insurance benefits. ... If you had an opportunity to work, but did not because you were sick, you likely cannot receive unemployment insurance benefits for that week, but may be eligible for benefits for other weeks,” the department’s website states.

As the Oregon Legislature’s joint COVID-19 committee and Congress discuss potential measures to assist businesses in crisis, business owners should continue to check Business Oregon’s website at www.oregon4biz.com/Coronavirus-Information for updates. Business Oregon already offers several low-interest loan options for businesses year-round.

Area business owners can also contact their nearest Small Business Development Center, the Greater Eastern Oregon Development Corporation or Umatilla County Economic Development Director Gail Nelson to discuss what grants, loans and other aid is available for businesses impacted by COVID-19 and by February flooding in Umatilla County.

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