WASHINGTON — The Senate scrambled to unravel last-minute snags Wednesday night before unanimous passage of an unparalleled $2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 883-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history, and both parties’ leaders were desperate for quick passage as the virus took lives and jobs by the hour. The Senate stayed in session late into the night, passing the bill at around 11:30 p.m. after days of delays. Some senators who were in self-isolation due to potential virus exposure, including Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who has tested positive for the virus, missed the vote.
Insistently optimistic, President Donald Trump said of the greatest public-health emergency in anyone’s lifetime, “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch” and anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when it’s over. Yet he implored Congress late in the day to move on critical aid without further delay.
The package is intended as relief for an economy spiraling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, said: “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”
Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.
“A fight has arrived on our shores,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we’re going to win it.”
“Big help, quick help, is on the way,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
But the drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators from states who economies are dominated by low-wage jobs demanded changes, saying the legislation as written might give workers like store clerks incentives to stay on unemployment instead of returning return to their jobs since they may earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working.
Other objections floated in from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said: “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”
Cuomo said the Senate package would send less than $4 billion to New York, far short of his estimate that the crisis will cost his state up to $15 billion over the next year. More than 280 New Yorkers have died from the virus, a death toll more than double that of any other state. The number of dead in the U.S. topped 900, with more than 60,000 infections.
Authorities in New York mobilized to head off the potential public health disaster Wednesday.
A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital, and the city’s police, their ranks dwindling as more fall sick, were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing. Public health officials hunted down beds and medical equipment and put out a call for more doctors and nurses for fear the number of sick will explode in a matter of weeks, overwhelming hospitals the way the virus did in Italy and Spain.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the relief package “goes a long way.” He said it will require strong oversight to ensure the wealthy don’t benefit at the expense of workers and proposed forgiving at least $10,000 of student loan debt as part of the federal response.
McConnell and Schumer hoped passage of the legislation in the Republican-led Senate would come by the end of the day.
Senate passage would leave final congressional approval up to the Democratic-controlled House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bipartisan agreement “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people” but she stopped short of fully endorsing it.
“House Democrats will now review the final provisions and legislative text of the agreement to determine a course of action,” she said.
House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber is unclear.
House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington. But that may prove challenging, as the bill is sure to be opposed by some conservatives upset at its cost and scope. Ardent liberals were restless as well.
White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway Wednesday, shortly after midnight, capping days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure. The wording of some final pieces of the agreement need to be completed.
The sprawling, 500-page-plus measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.
It would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.
Meanwhile, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, commended Trump on Wednesday for “taking responsibility” for leading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Columbia County Health Officer Susan Lorenz issued a new No. 1 message to local residents as the state prohibited nonessential business and travel in Wisconsin: “You are safer at home.”
“It’s true, so please don’t focus on the numbers,” Lorenz said of staying at home and the five Columbia County residents who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and disease it causes, COVID-19.
“You might be thinking, ‘Oh, we don’t have as many cases as Dane does (72),’ but please understand the virus is out there,” Lorenz said. “There may be more people who have it, but don’t know it or who were not tested because the tests are prioritized for certain individuals (based on their symptoms).”
Last week the health department reported Columbia County is experiencing “community spread,” which means the virus “seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community,” Lorenz said.
Three of the infected had traveled out of the state or country but the other two had not, Lorenz said. All five of them are being isolated voluntarily “and working with local public health every day and doing what they’re asked to do and staying home and monitoring their symptoms.”
In Columbia County, 162 residents have tested negative for the virus as of Wednesday afternoon and Lorenz is “encouraged by that (ratio) when you compare it to the state’s,” she said.
Wisconsin has 585 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday afternoon and 10,089 tested negative with six deaths. It means that about 5.5 percent of Wisconsin residents who have been tested for COVID-19 have tested positive, compared to 3 percent in Columbia County.
“It is a better ratio,” Lorenz said, “but it is impossible to say what that means.”
In Portage, Divine Savior Healthcare hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Walters and Lorenz expressed optimism for eventually overcoming the pandemic, which requires collaboration and cooperation in the community and around the world.
“I am uplifted by everyone’s collaboration, understanding and concern,” Walters said. “Our patients have been very understanding about changes in flow at the hospital and clinic as we respond to the pandemic, our employees have been collaborative and flexible and our community has shared their concern for the organization while providing their support.”
“I think medical professionals are concerned, as are all persons, about the pandemic,” Walters said. “However, I feel they are confident in their and our ability to respond to the challenge to treat our patients.”
Both Lorenz and Walters reiterated how important it is to call the hospital’s coronavirus hotline before visiting the facility — 844-568-0701 — so that your medical professionals do not become overwhelmed.
Lorenz said local collaboration includes but is not limited to hospitals, medical clinics, nursing homes, long-term care facilities, police, fire, EMS, schools, home health agencies, pharmacies, mental health providers, local media, churches and all county employees.
“We have very positive working relationships with our partners,” Lorenz said, “and we’re all in this together to help our citizens in Columbia County be safe and to also inform them of the latest messages and facts that are coming from the state Department of Health Services and CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
“That’s part of our job — making sure our public goes to reputable news sources. It is very important to monitor the news from sources that are factual and reliable.”
Lorenz posts health updates regularly on the county website, found by clicking on the “coronavirus” link at co.columbia.wi.us.
The county’s coronavirus information hotline is 608-742-9253.
Columbia County Sheriff Roger Brandner said Tuesday that area law enforcement are working together to review and interpret Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order and they encourage compliance.
“You do not need paperwork to leave your home,” Brandner said on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. “We are not under ‘martial law.’ You will not be stopped without reasonable suspicion that a violation of law has occurred. This is the same standard that existed prior to this order.”
Brandner is asking that residents do not call the sheriff’s office with their questions about what the governor’s order means. Questions about the order should instead be directed to GovPress@wisconsin.gov or 608-219-7443.
Brandner said, ”My staff and I are committed and dedicated to protecting your constitutional rights.”
“We will investigate and take enforcement action on blatant and defiant violations of this order that put our community at greater risk,” Brandner continued. “We are asking for voluntary compliance with this order so we can move forward and defeat this pandemic.”
“As hard as it is right now please know we are all in this together,” Brandner said. “You and your kids are safer at home. This means stay home, go to work if you’re required too, go back home and stay healthy. This is a great time to enjoy your family and catch up on some of that spring cleaning.”
In an email late Monday, Brandner outlined that the sheriff’s office has its own methods for staying safe as communities work to prevent the spread of coronavirus between people.
Adjustments began about a week ago for patrol deputies and jail operators. Access is restricted to secure buildings in both divisions and authorities have “handled as many calls over the phone as we can,” Brandner said.
Referring to it as a balancing act, the sheriff noted that a number of citizen complaints require deputies to speak in person to those affected. Deputies continue to meet with residents when it’s necessary.
Staff have also had to shift hours, reducing contact with one another. Some are working opposite days to make sure they can continue to have officers to handle calls. The sheriff’s office has personal protective equipment, which is assigned to every deputy.
In a teleconference with Portage city officials Wednesday, Gov. Tony Evers told Mayor Rick Dodd that Columbia County Emergency Management submitted an order to the state on behalf of all municipalities. Brandner noted that with the help of the county health care center, additional masks were procured to give every police department within the county masks for all officers.
Calls for deputies continue to keep all staff members busy, Brandner noted, with accidents, domestic disputes, welfare checks and drunken driving being most notable. They have also limited access to the Huber center. Inmates have remained inside the jail to ensure they stay healthy and not infect others with the virus humans have no immunity against.
Despite changes, the day-to-day operations remain functional on a high level, Brandner said, even with about two staff members currently out on sick leave.
Continued monitoring of the pandemic means they could adjust again at anytime to ensure everyone is safe, he said
“If we all make the sacrifice for a couple of weeks we should get past this sooner than later.”