Good afternoon, and thank you to everybody who has joined us.
As you know, I’m hosting this call with state and local elected officials here in central Florida to discuss the congressional response to coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. I know this has been an incredibly challenging time for all of us, and I want to thank you for your leadership and your commitment to your constituents.
I did a similar call with health care workers on Tuesday evening and another one this morning, and I know some of you listened in on those calls. Those conversations were helpful and honest and, frankly, a bit heartbreaking.
I think you’ll all agree that these doctors and nurses are soldiers on the front lines of this fight. They are so dedicated and courageous. We must ensure they have the resources, equipment, and supplies necessary to do their job both effectively and safely.
Like you, I am laser-focused on getting our health care workers and other first responders the personal protective equipment they need and deserve, so they in turn can provide patients with the standard of care that they need and deserve.
Earlier today, I held a similar call with representatives from non-profit organizations and another call with local chambers of commerce. Everyone has had their lives upended by this crisis, and everyone is eager to obtain information, to provide input, and to share their impressions.
I have to tell you—I benefit enormously from these conversations. They give me the ground truth and the good ideas I need to support our community here in central Florida and our country more broadly during this uniquely challenging time.
What I’d like to do is offer just some brief framing remarks and then outline what Congress has done and is doing to combat COVID on both the health care front and the economic front. I’ll try to focus on the aspects of our response that I think would be most useful to you as state and local leaders.
But I really want the information to flow in both directions. I want to know what you’re seeing and hearing. You are dealing with this in real time on the ground, interacting with your constituents.
If I don’t mention something you care about, or if you want more details about something I’ve said, we can discuss it further during the Q-and-A or after the call.
So, you probably know the numbers, but they’re worth repeating. According to the CDC, we now have about 55,000 confirmed COVID cases nationwide and nearly 750 deaths.
In Florida, we have about 1,900 confirmed cases, and at least 23 deaths.
There are 89 confirmed cases in Orange County and 32 in Seminole County. Every time my office obtains the latest statistics in preparation for these events, the numbers have sharply increased.
Coronavirus is, first and foremost, a public health crisis—but it has spawned a sudden and profound economic crisis, as a broad range of businesses are forced to shutter or dramatically scale back operations.
Many businesses that, just a month ago, were thriving or at least surviving, now stand on the brink of disaster. Families that held stable jobs and earned stable incomes now confront the prospect of unemployment for the foreseeable future.
Their retirement and investment accounts are rapidly losing value, and their children are at home, missing out on their education, because their day care, school, or college has closed down.
All of us are deeply worried about the older people in our lives, like our beloved elderly parents or grandparents, who are more likely to suffer serious health effects from the illness.
To combat coronavirus effectively, we need a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach.
When the enemy you’re fighting is an infectious disease, your personal conduct doesn’t just affect you personally. It affects everyone else in your community too.
That’s why social distancing, and staying at home wherever possible, and washing your hands—all these seemingly humdrum things—are so critical. Seeing people crowded on Florida beaches is totally unacceptable to me, as I’m sure it is to you.
They are endangering themselves and their fellow citizens. If people won’t do the right thing voluntarily, then government must require them to do the right thing.
We are a nation deeply committed to the principle of personal freedom. It’s part of our national soul. It’s one of the reasons I love this country so much. But, right now, we all need to make some personal sacrifices for the common good.
As I said, coronavirus is, above all, a threat to public health—and that threat will only be defeated through science and medicine.
We have to conduct far more testing to identify people with COVID so we can isolate and treat them—effectively and humanely.
We need better medical treatments for people with COVID so they survive their ordeal and recover. Keeping the mortality rate low is key.
And we need a large-scale, Manhattan Project-style research effort to develop a vaccine.
That’s the only way this crisis ends. Until then, we need to soldier on and do everything possible to support our workers and businesses, who are being hurt by a force beyond their control, through no fault of their own.
This will require calm, capable, and decisive leadership at every level of government. There is absolutely no time for partisanship or petty politics. Coronavirus is tearing at the fabric of our society, but we can’t let it break us.
Now, as you may have heard, I’ve been personally affected by COVID. I’m hosting this call from self-quarantine here in central Florida, because I was in close proximity to another Member of Congress who later tested positive for coronavirus.
Knock on wood, I’ve experienced no symptoms to date and my health is very good. It’s now been 13 days since my potential exposure. Unless there are changes to my health, I’ll end my self-quarantine tomorrow—two weeks from my exposure date.
Two of my staff members are also self-quarantining, and they feel fine too. As you can imagine, my staff are like family to me, and so I’m closely monitoring their condition as well as my own.
All of this serves to underscore that COVID is a challenge to our entire community, our entire country, and our entire world. It doesn’t care whether you are rich or poor, or what religion or nationality you are, or what language you speak, or the color of your skin. The simple fact is—we are all in this together.
With that as background, let me quickly outline what Congress is doing to respond to this pandemic.
We’ve already passed two large bills this month and this week we are passing an even larger bill—the largest bill in history, in fact.
I will give you a few highlights from these bills, and we can delve into the details during the Q-and-A if you’d like.
The first bill totaled $8.3 billion dollars. It was an emergency appropriations bill, mostly putting new funding into key health accounts to fund research and development on testing, treatment, and vaccines.
The bill also created a disaster loan program at SBA to assist small businesses and non-profits affected by COVID, and that program is now up and running in Florida.
Qualifying small businesses can receive up to $2 million dollars in financial assistance, which can be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable, and other bills that can’t be paid because of COVID’s impact.
Congress has eliminated the creditworthiness requirements that typically apply to these programs and we’ve reduced red tape and bureaucracy so checks go out the door and into your businesses as soon as possible.
If your constituents want to apply for a loan, and need guidance, my office is happy to assist them, so please refer them to us.
The second coronavirus bill we crafted was approved a week ago, though it seems like a year ago.
It provides free testing for coronavirus for all Americans, with or without insurance.
It also increases federal funding for Medicaid programs in Florida and other states. As you know, I’ve urged leaders in Tallahassee to finally expand Medicaid to cover more people. It was the right thing to do before this crisis, and it’s absolutely critical now.
Finally, the law provides for two weeks of sick leave for workers who are sick or quarantined or who are caring for a family member who is sick or quarantined.
It provides for an additional 10 weeks of family and medical leave for workers who must stay home to care for a child whose school or day care has closed due to coronavirus. I was deeply involved in drafting this provision. It’s not perfect, but I’m really proud of it.
Employers who are required to provide these benefits to their eligible workers get swiftly reimbursed by the federal government—at 100 percent. The reimbursement is done as a credit against employer-side payroll taxes. We’ve tried to make it as fast as possible, because we know a lot of firms have cash flow problems right now.
That brings me to the third bill, which is known as the CARES Act, which I am sure you have been hearing about all over the news. The Senate approved the nearly 900-page bill late last night, the House will likely approve it tomorrow, and I expect the President will sign it almost immediately. This is good, because our constituents can’t wait a moment longer for support from their government.
The CARES Act is a $2 trillion dollar investment in our health system, our economy, our families, and our businesses. It’s the biggest bill, dollars-wise, in the history of our country. It’s an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis.
I should caution you that some of the finer points of this bill are still being absorbed, because the bill was changing up until the very last moment. In the coming days, my office will be making sure families and businesses are aware of all the different forms of assistance made available under the bill, so folks can get the help they need. It’s not just about enacting this bill, it’s about executing on it.
Let me just give you some highlights of this nearly 900-page bill that I hope will be of interest and relevance. My office can provide your offices with any information they need in the coming days, because I know your constituents will be asking you many questions.
So, the bill includes what has been described as a “Marshall Plan” for health care workers and our health care system. The funding levels are so large they are hard to wrap your head around.
The bill also provides every adult with a Social Security number with a check for $1,200 dollars, plus an additional $500 dollars per child. Those amounts will begin to phase out for individuals earning more than $75,000 dollars—or $150,000 dollars for married couples. We are trying to get checks out the door as soon as possible.
The bill makes a massive investment in state unemployment insurance programs so that unemployed workers get the economic support they need to continue to provide for themselves and their families. This is particularly important for Florida, which has perhaps the least generous unemployment insurance program in the country.
In general, the bill provides every American receiving unemployment with a $600 dollar increase in their weekly benefits for four months; increases the length for which benefits can be received; and allows part-time, self-employed, and gig economy workers to access benefits. Florida leaders will need to take full advantage of this federal support, and at the same time take their own steps to improve the state’s anemic UI program.
The bill directly appropriates over $340 billion dollars in funding, and 80 percent of that will go to state and local governments and communities.
This includes $31 billion for something called the Education Stabilization Fund. This is flexible funding that will go directly to states, school districts, and colleges to help with immediate needs related to COVID, like distance learning.
It also includes $31 billion for transit, like airports and bus and rail services, and another $17 billion for the Community Development Block Grant program and other HUD programs, including programs to help the homeless.
The bill provides $45 billion dollars to FEMA to continue response and recovery activities and to reimburse states and localities out of the Disaster Relief Fund.
This is important because the President issued a major disaster declaration for Florida yesterday. This means state and local governments can seek assistance and get reimbursed for a wide array of measures you have taken or will take to respond to COVID. One of my staff members, Stephanie Palacios, is our resident FEMA expert. She is on the call and can answer any specific questions you have either during the call or afterwards.
The CARES Act also creates a new, special, $150 billion dollar Coronavirus Relief Fund for state and local governments. Local governments with 500,000 or more residents would be able to apply for their own direct funding, with smaller ones needing to go through the state.
A population-based formula would determine the amount each state receives, with no state receiving less than $1.25 billion, including funds set to local governments.
Whether you represent an area that can apply for funding directly or whether you must go through the state, we will do everything possible to ensure you get the funding you need.
The CARES Act also makes a wide variety of assistance available to small businesses, including $350 billion dollars in forgivable loans available to small businesses to maintain their existing workforce and help pay for other expenses like rent, mortgage, and utilities. Again, if your constituents want to apply and have questions, please refer them to my office.
Finally, I want to highlight a provision I’m particularly proud of, which is a proposal I’ve been pushing called the Employee Retention Tax Credit, or ERTC. We fought really hard to get this in the final bill, and we were ultimately successful—right at the last moment.
The ERTC is a fully refundable tax credit that employers of any size can claim. It incentivizes—and rewards—employers, including non-profits—to keep employees on the payroll, receiving uninterrupted pay and benefits.
The credit is available to employers that had to fully or partially suspend operations due to a government order, or that had a 50 percent decline in gross receipts for any quarter in 2020, compared to the same quarter in 2019.
I’m really excited about this credit, and I’m hopeful it will be of use to both businesses and workers.
Again, if your constituents want to apply for the SBA program or utilize the ERTC, please refer them to my office and we can help them navigate the process.
While there are many, many other provisions in the bill that I’m happy to discuss, I want to turn it over to you now.
I will use whatever you tell me on this call to inform my next actions. I’ll also convey the information you give me to my key colleagues in Congress and to senior officials in the Trump administration.
I’m joined on this call by multiple members of my staff. I’ve asked them to chime in from time to time to help address your concerns.
With that, I want to thank you again and open up the line to your questions and comments.