Good evening, and thank you to everybody who has joined us tonight. My name is Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy. I represent Seminole County and part of Orange County in the United States House of Representatives.
As you know, I’m hosting this telephone town hall to discuss with you, my constituents, the congressional response to coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
I feel tremendously honored and privileged to be your voice in our nation’s capital. And now, more than ever before, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to get you the support you need during this difficult period.
I know this pandemic has upended all of your lives. It’s having a broad and deep impact on the planet we all inhabit, on our beloved country, and on our beloved community here in central Florida.
COVID-19 doesn’t care about the color of your skin, what religion you practice, what language you speak, how much money you have, or your political affiliation. In this sense, the virus should serve to unite us. It should help heal the deep divisions in our nation, rather than tear us further apart.
Because the truth is—we’re all in this together. And, make no mistake, we will get through this together. Things are difficult right now, and are likely to remain difficult for a while longer. But, as they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn—and I promise you that a new day will dawn.
In my remarks, I will try to summarize the scale and scope of the challenge we confront.
Then I will outline the overall strategy that we as a society, and especially those of us in positions of public leadership, should implement in order to overcome this challenge.
I also want to share with you what Congress has done to respond to COVID-19. Despite some policy disagreements between congressional Democrats and Republicans, I’m heartened that we have been able to act on a swift, bipartisan basis.
Likewise, despite some sharp differences in outlook and approach between Democrats in Congress and the President of the United States, we have managed to work closely with the Trump administration in order to pass three major bills into law this month. And I suspect we will pass more legislation going forward, until this crisis ends.
I—and most of my fellow lawmakers—understand that this is a grave and pivotal moment in American history, and that history will judge us for our actions. I’m someone who has little patience for petty, partisan politics at any time, but especially at a time like this. There’s far too much at stake.
Of course, I would be the first to acknowledge that the final bills that emerged from our bipartisan negotiations in Congress, and with the President, have not been perfect. But they have been very, very good. When human lives and livelihoods are on the line, as they are right now, we simply cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
The third of the three bills we’ve now approved, known as the CARES Act, became law on Friday. By virtually any measure, it is the largest piece of legislation in the history of the United States. It’s a $2 trillion dollar investment in our country. It’s an unprecedented response to an unprecedented national and global challenge.
I will highlight some of the key provisions in this sweeping bill, as well as in the first two bills we passed, so you get a sense of the range of federal assistance that may be available to you, your family, your business, our health care system, and our economy.
And please note: my office is always here to help you navigate the federal bureaucracy; to help you cut through any red tape you encounter; and ultimately to help get you the support you’re entitled to under the law.
Assisting constituents is more than my job, it’s my mission, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us by phone or by email. My team in Orlando, Sanford, and Washington, D.C. are standing by, ready to help.
After my remarks, I want to hear directly from you. I want to understand your concerns, listen to your ideas, and try my best to answer your questions. If there is something I can’t answer, we will find someone who can, and my team will reach back out to you after the call.
I promise I will use what you tell me on this call to inform my next steps. I’ll also pass along the information you give me to my colleagues in Congress, to officials at the White House, and to leaders at agencies like the CDC, the FDA, the Small Business Administration, FEMA, and the IRS.
Now, let me quickly summarize the problem we face—around the world, in this country, and in central Florida.
As of today, the COVID-19 pandemic has sickened about 700,000 people in over 170 countries, and about 33,000 people have died as a result of the illness.
The United States now holds the dubious title of having more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other nation. We’ve surpassed hard-hit countries like Italy, Spain, and China—where the outbreak began—although it’s not clear Beijing’s numbers are accurate.
Nationwide, we have about 140,000 confirmed cases, spread across every U.S. state and virtually every U.S. territory, including Puerto Rico. The number of confirmed cases continues to rise sharply, as more people get tested and more people acquire the illness.
Although the vast majority of patients with COVID-19 survive, after experiencing symptoms that range from mild to severe, over 2,400 Americans have passed away.
These are more than abstract statistics, these were human beings with families and friends. We mourn every precious life we’ve lost to this terrible virus.
Currently, the state with the most cases is New York, followed by New Jersey, California, Michigan, Washington state, Massachusetts, and then Florida.
According to the Florida Department of Health, about 5,200 Florida residents have tested positive for COVID-19, about 650 have been hospitalized, and at least 63 have died.
There are 272 confirmed cases in Orange County and 83 in Seminole County. Every time my office looks up the most recent data in preparation for events like this, the numbers have shot up.
Coronavirus is, first and foremost, a public health crisis. But it has also spawned a sudden and steep economic crisis. As government leaders take painful but necessary steps to contain the spread of COVID-19, many small, medium-sized, and larger businesses have been forced to close or to dramatically reduce operations.
As a result, last week, nearly 3.3 million Americans lost their jobs and filed for unemployment benefits, including nearly 75,000 workers in Florida. That’s more than four times higher than the previous national record.
Workers and businesses in central Florida have been severely impacted, including those in the hard-hit travel, tourism and hospitality sectors.
I know many of you on this call have already been personally affected, or are concerned you will be personally affected, by this public health crisis—and by the economic crisis it has caused.
That’s completely natural and normal. It’s only natural to worry that you, or someone you love dearly, will get COVID-19. You especially worry about the older people in your life, or those with underlying health conditions, who are the most likely to suffer serious symptoms as a result of the virus.
It’s also natural and normal to worry about your family’s economic future. This all happened so quickly. Many businesses that, just a month ago, were thriving, or at least surviving, now stand in a precarious position.
Families that held stable jobs and earned stable incomes confront the prospect of unemployment for the foreseeable future. You watch as your retirement and investment accounts rapidly lose value. Meanwhile, if you have children, they are likely at home, missing out on their education, because their day care, school, or college has closed.
You try your hardest to adapt and adjust, and to make the best of a bad situation, and to help out your neighbors who are more vulnerable than you are.
That’s the American way. Always rising to the challenge. Putting others before yourself. Fighting for your family, fighting for your community, and fighting for your country. Never giving up.
But it’s also natural and normal for doubt and a sense of physical and emotional isolation to sometimes creep in. We all feel that way. Again, we’re all in this together—and together we will get through this.
To combat COVID-19 effectively, we need a whole-of-society approach.
Every one of us has a role to play, from everyday Americans to elected leaders. 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 mundane things—are so critical.
They reduce the rate of new infections, which you may have heard described as “flattening the curve.” That buys us more time to build up the capacity of our health care system so hospitals are prepared to meet demand and every patient who seeks treatment can get the proper care.
That’s why seeing these images of people crowded on Florida beaches was so concerning to me, as I’m sure it was to you.
Folks who do that endanger themselves and their fellow Americans. My view is straightforward. Under these unique circumstances, if people won’t do the right and responsible thing voluntarily, then government leaders must require them to do the right and responsible thing.
We are a nation deeply committed to the principle of personal liberty. It’s part of our national soul. It’s one of our founding ideals, enshrined in our founding documents. It’s one of the many reasons I love this country so much, especially since my family escaped a country that did not value human freedom. But, right now, we all need to make some personal sacrifices for the greater good.
As I said, COVID-19 is, above all, a threat to public health. As such, it will only be defeated through science and medicine.
What does this entail?
It starts with testing. We have to produce and distribute far more testing kits so we can identify people with COVID-19, quarantine them, and treat them—effectively and humanely. The goal should be to guarantee that every American who should be tested can get tested, swiftly and safely.
We are making progress on the testing front. For instance, the FDA just approved a COVID-19 test developed by a U.S. company that returns results within 45 minutes, and it is being deployed to hospitals now. This is a good example of government unleashing the innovative spirit that resides within America’s private sector, rather than standing in its way.
While this progress is welcome, the reality is that it took far too long. It is clear that the federal government’s initial response to COVID-19 was deeply flawed, especially with respect to testing.
This resulted from a combination of factors, including leadership failures, inadequate planning, excessive bureaucracy, technical errors, and simple human shortcomings. We wasted valuable time in January and February and therefore missed the chance to better contain the epidemic in its early stages.
When the current crisis is behind us, it will be appropriate to look backward. I plan to file legislation very soon to create a 9/11-style commission to examine what went wrong, identify lessons learned, and make concrete recommendations for the future.
The goal will not be to point fingers or assign blame, but to make our country stronger and more resilient. Right now, rather than dwell on the past, we need to accept the reality that ‘we are where we are’ and focus on fixing the problem in front of us.
Besides better testing, we must develop effective anti-viral medications and treatments so that people with COVID-19 survive and recover. Reducing the mortality rate is critically important.
We also need a large-scale, Manhattan Project-style research effort to develop a vaccine, with American scientists working with scientists in other countries wherever possible. Competition is fine, as long as it spurs innovation, but collaboration is even better.
Finally, we need to get our health care workers and other first responders the personal protective gear, medical equipment, and supplies they need and deserve, so they in turn can provide patients with the standard of care they need and deserve.
This is another area in which the government’s efforts to date have fallen far short. But, again, instead of looking in the rear-view mirror, we must keep our eyes fixed on the road ahead.
I held two calls last week with health workers in central Florida to thank them and listen to them. These doctors and nurses and other caregivers are our soldiers on the frontlines. They are so dedicated and so brave. But, right now, we are essentially sending them into battle without armor or ammunition.
Today happens to be National Doctors Day. So it’s a good day to reiterate the solemn promise I made to our physicians and their fellow health workers. I pledge that I will work tirelessly to get them what they need to perform their noble work effectively and safely.
Florida, like many states, has a shortage of personal protective equipment like hospital-grade masks, gowns, and gloves, and key medical devices like ventilators.
The rapid production of medical equipment and devices, and their swift distribution to workers on the frontlines, is mission-critical. It will require the government and private industry to work as a team—and I know many companies are eager to help. If there were ever a time for corporate patriotism, it’s right now.
At times, it will also require the government to compel private industry to act. That’s why I’m glad the President finally used his authority under the Defense Production Act and ordered GM to manufacture ventilators. I hope the President will continue to use this tool.
We need to harness the power of American industry, just like we did during World War II, when plants were repurposed to make bombers and tanks. Our nation needs to assume a war footing once again, against a different sort of enemy. Only now, the ‘weapons of war’ our factories churn out will be life-saving medical equipment.
In the meantime, while we race to expand testing, improve treatments, develop a vaccine, protect our frontline workers, and produce medical devices and equipment—we also need to 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.
Let me close by briefly outlining what Congress has done to combat COVID-19 on both the health care front and the economic front.
As I mentioned, we have passed three, overwhelmingly-bipartisan bills. I’ll highlight a few of the key provisions. I won’t bore you by citing specific funding numbers, but suffice it to say they are huge and hard to wrap your head around.
If you know me, you know I take fiscal responsibility very seriously. I’ve even proposed amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget, except in times of emergency or economic downturn. Well, this is an emergency—and Congress has no choice but to spend billions of dollars to save lives and livelihoods. There is simply no other option.
I lead an organization in Congress called the Blue Dog Coalition. One of our main pillars is fiscal discipline. My fellow Blue Dogs and I insisted that the bills include extensive oversight and transparency requirements—and we were successful. We are going to make sure every dollar allocated in these bills is spent responsibly, in the precise way it was intended, and not diverted for other purposes.
So, here are some of the main provisions in the bills. I’m happy to go into more details during the Q-and-A.
For starters, we’ve funded research and development on testing, treatments, vaccines, and we’ve poured resources into producing vital medical equipment and supplies. It’s been accurately described as a ‘Marshall Plan’ for health workers, hospitals, and our health care system.
We’ve provided free COVID-19 testing for all Americans, whether they have insurance or not. Nobody will pay a penny to get tested.
We’ve increased federal funding for Medicaid in Florida and other states. 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.
We’ve provided two weeks of paid sick leave for workers who are sick or quarantined or who are caring for a family member who is sick or quarantined.
We’ve provided an additional 10 weeks of paid family and medical leave for workers who must stay home to care for a child whose school or day care has closed. I was deeply involved in writing this provision. It’s not perfect, but I’m really proud of it.
Employers required to provide these benefits to their workers will get swiftly reimbursed by the federal government—at 100 percent.
We’re providing nearly every adult who has 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 these checks out the door as soon as possible.
Let me also take a moment to point out that, due to these salary restrictions, Members of Congress are not eligible to receive a check. I know there is a lot of misinformation circulating on the internet, so let me also clarify that Members of Congress are not getting a pay raise in this bill.
Yes, additional money was directed to the House and Senate, but that is strictly to be used to increase our teleworking capacity so we can keep our government functioning during this crisis.
So, let me repeat: Members of Congress are not getting a check and we are not getting a pay raise. In fact, when my own party proposed increasing salaries for Members of Congress earlier this year, I objected and they abandoned that effort.
Returning to the bills we’ve passed, Congress also made a massive investment in unemployment insurance so workers who lose their jobs will receive the support they need to take care of themselves and their families. This is particularly important for Florida, which has perhaps the least generous unemployment insurance system in the country.
Specifically, we’ve provided every American receiving unemployment with a $600 dollar increase in their weekly benefits for up to four months; increased the length for which benefits can be received; and enabled part-time, self-employed, and gig economy workers to access benefits—something they haven’t been able to do in the past.
We’ve provided a four-month moratorium on evictions for many renters who are unable to pay their rent, as well as a four-month moratorium on home foreclosures for many homeowners who are unable to meet their mortgage payments.
Many state and local governments and private companies are taking parallel actions on issues like this, since millions of Americans are suddenly struggling to meet their housing and utility expenses.
We’ve also provided substantial aid for K-12 students, college students, and schools, including to support online learning and provide student loan relief.
We’ve boosted support for veterans’ health care, farmers, public transit, housing services, and our local communities. In fact, this weekend, Orange County, Seminole County, Orlando, and Sanford received a total of $10 million dollars to help them address economic and social disruption caused by COVID-19.
We’ve also made a range of assistance available to struggling small businesses and their workers, including non-profit organizations, self-employed workers, and start-ups. For example, many small businesses will be able to access low-interest loans up to $10 million dollars, and those loans will be forgiven if used to meet payroll and other core expenses.
Finally, we’ve included a measure called the Employee Retention Tax Credit, which I was the first Member of Congress to propose and which we managed to get into the bill at the very last moment. Literally on the last day of negotiations. My staff and I worked very hard, calling multiple Senate offices, and we got it done.
My Employee Retention Tax Credit provides direct financial support to businesses of all sizes that retain and pay their workers, either in active or furloughed status, rather than lay them off. I’m really excited about this credit, and I’m hopeful it will be of use to businesses and workers and will help prevent mass layoffs at companies like Disney and Universal here in central Florida.
And for all the small business owners on the call, you’re in my thoughts. My husband runs a small business, so I know that your workers are like family and you want to take care of them.
Over the coming weeks, my office will offer a series of events to educate small business owners on how to obtain the resources they need to keep their employees on payroll so they can come roaring back after this crisis. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and you have my full support.
The road ahead won’t be easy. But we will soldier through. Please know I’m listening to you. I’m fighting for you. And I will do whatever it takes, and work with whomever it requires, to see our community through this.
We’re all in this together.