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State and federal officials provide fragmented response to COVID-19 pandemic

Faced with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, citizens across the commonwealth have been looking to their elected officials for answers. While much uncertainty still exists, lawmakers in Congress and on Beacon Hill have passed several measures to provide relief for individuals, businesses, and municipalities.

Massachusetts is currently ranked fourth of the 50 states in per capita COVID-19 cases with 203 cases per 100,000 people. Out of the state’s total 13,837 cases, 1,077 are in Worcester County. While this is undoubtedly an alarming number of incidents, Worcester County ranks in the bottom third of per capita cases out of the state’s 14 counties.

The first case of COVID-19 in Massachusetts was reported February 1, yet it was only after the state experienced its first deaths more than six weeks later that Governor Baker took decisive action by issuing a stay-at-home advisory. Now, as state Sen. Jamie Eldridge reported in an interview with the Press, there is “a real ramping up of the legislative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On Friday, April 3, for instance, an act was signed into law to assist the functioning of town governments by allowing for such measures as the postponement of town meetings, adoption of lower quorum rules for select boards, and month-to-month spending into fiscal 2021 based on the 2020 budget for as long as the state of emergency prevents the adoption of a new budget.

Also in the works in the Senate, Eldridge informed the Press, is a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures across the state. “Probably the biggest thing I’m pushing for,” said Eldridge, “is social safety net legislation and funding” to support the “literally hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents” who are now unemployed and seeking benefits, or are still employed but require paid leave while coping with COVID-19. Of particular importance, Eldridge stated, is passing an emergency supplemental budget. “I think we need … in the hundreds of millions of dollars [for] rental assistance, food assistance, support to community hospitals, [and] more state aid to towns and cities that are grappling with buying medical supplies for their firefighters, police, and emergency medical services.”

Sen. Eldridge himself assisted in the procurement and delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) to Acton Town Hall and Lowell General Hospital, which—while he noted he was happy to do—is a reflection, he said, of the federal government’s dysfunction regarding the organized disbursement of life-saving medical equipment.

‘A good job’

Of Gov. Baker’s response to the pandemic, Eldridge expressed approval, stating, “He’s generally done a good job, and I think he’s been a steady hand during the pandemic.” However, Eldridge added, “I do wish that the measures such as closing schools, closing restaurants, telling people to stay at home … had happened a week to 10 days earlier.”

At the federal level, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act) was passed by voice vote in both chambers of Congress, with bipartisan support after weeks of tense negotiation, and signed into law March 27.

The CARES Act covers seven main categories: individuals, small businesses, large corporations, hospitals and public health measures, the federal safety net, state and local governments, and education. Individuals earning less than $75,000 can expect to receive a single cash payment of $1,200, and those who are out of work can anticipate an increase in unemployment benefits and expansion of eligibility. The number of unemployment claims in Massachusetts continues to soar to new heights, with initial claims increasing to 181,062 for the week ending March 28, up from 7,449 new claims two weeks prior. This exponential surge has prompted a tenfold increase in the number of Department of Unemployment Assistance call center employees. However, for those eager to benefit from the CARE Act’s expansion of benefits, the wait is not over. The federal government has advised states to delay implementing the new programs until further guidance is issued.

A  focus on small business

Small businesses can also expect to benefit through a series of emergency grants, forgivable loans, and relief for existing loans. The Small Business Administration has repeatedly stated that the first round of aid for businesses with 500 or fewer employees would be delivered within three days, but with lenders unprepared for the influx of applications, or already overwhelmed, the funds have not been delivered. CNBC reports that the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic, those with fewer than 50 employees, may not be able to benefit at all, given the existing structure of the legislation. For example, many businesses that had to lay off workers in the early stages of the pandemic will not be able to access loans based on future payroll obligations. This includes many restaurants, gyms, and small-town stores.

Sen. Eldridge stated that he “certainly would hope that the Harvard General Store would apply” to the CARES Act grants, but added that the need for state legislators and staff to organize the dissemination of information to businesses about the complicated process “underscores that the state needs to take action as well.” To that end, Eldridge has introduced S.D. 2888—An Act Concerning Business Interruption Insurance—which would allow small businesses to file insurance claims for business interruption due to COVID-19, even if existing policies do not cover viruses. The bill was introduced as an emergency law to expedite its passage and would retroactively cover insureds with 150 or fewer employees to March 10, the date of Gov. Baker’s emergency declaration.

Small-town relief

Harvard’s U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan has also been advocating for small towns and businesses on Capitol Hill. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, cosigned by 12 other representatives, she expressed concern that the current COVID-19 relief packages have not provided direct funding to counties, cities, and towns with populations under 500,000, such as Harvard, and urged Pelosi to make direct monies available through the Community Development Block Grant program, which allows states to use federally allocated funds at their discretion.

Sen. Eldridge encouraged town officials, fire departments, and hospitals in need of support—as well as residents who are interested in donating PPE supplies—to contact his office at (617) 722-1120.

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