BARRE — Congressman Peter Welch and other state and local leaders on Monday outlined steps to respond to the needs of the sick, workers and businesses affected by the spread of the coronavirus in Vermont.
At a news conference at Capstone Community Action in Barre, Welch was joined by Lindsay Kurrle, Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development; Michael Harrington, interim labor commissioner at Labor Department; Sascha Mayer, founder and CEO of Mamava, a women’s lactation facility company in Burlington; and Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action.
Welch shared information, advice and direction on what federal and state officials were doing to address the virus outbreak, and offered information on how individuals should modify their “personal behavior” to stay safe and care for others in need.
Welch said officials were having to respond on multiple levels, dealing with closures of schools and businesses and threats to the local economy, as well as the impact on health services and workers dealing with an increase in infections rates in the state, with 12 confirmed cases as of Monday.
“This virus is a challenge and a problem that we’ve never really faced,” the democratic congressman said. “It’s not as if you can put up a wall, it’s not as though you can deny its reality and it has a will of its own in how it spreads,” Welch said. “What we can do is take precautions but it’s going to take action at the federal level, it’s going to take action at the state level, and it’s going to take personal behavior – and all three have to work together.”
Welch noted Congress has been working on emergency legislation with two bills, H.R. 6074, which was passed March 6, and H.R. 6201, which was passed Saturday.
H.R. 6074 allocated $8.3 billion in federal aid for the Department of Health and Human Services with supplemental appropriations for the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund.
In addition, the bill provides supplemental appropriations for the Small Business Administration, the Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
H.R. 6201, which was passed by the House on Saturday, authorized spending emergency funding to help states and frontline providers respond to the outbreak.
Known as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, it would ensure that all Americans have free access to testing for the virus; establishes paid emergency leave, including both 14 days of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave; and enhances unemployment insurance that extends protections for furloughed workers. It also suspends work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or 3SquaresVT in Vermont); gives schools flexibility on how to ensure free or reduced-prices meals are delivered if schools close; boosts Medicaid for states during the crisis; and provides additional funding for home-delivered and prepackaged meals for low-income people and seniors.
Asked how the federal government would be able to pay for the bills’ provisions, Welch said it was likely the government would have to borrow the money.
“The challenges of actual execution fall under the responsibility of state and a lot of our employers and a lot of our community action agencies,” Welch said.
Welch said federal authorities had to ensure transparency and identify community spread of the virus and actions needed to address and mitigate it.
“The second area of responsibility at the federal level is to get resources back to the state and to our people,” Welch said. “That goes back to the states, except for some money to aggressively pursue a vaccine and get Medicaid money back to the state to assist in the delivery of services, personal protective equipment – it’s the resources that the states and our frontline providers will need in order to address this.”
If people are unable to work, the federal funding is designed to help employers and workers deal with loss of income and getting medical leave assistance, he said.
Welch said services for children entitled to reduced-cost or free meals at schools and services for low-income workers and seniors, such as heating fuel assistance and meals programs would also be guaranteed.
“So, it’s serious, we all know that, we know how to proceed and we better do it together and each of us has to do our part and we’ll get through it but let’s not underestimate that we’ve got a serious challenge,” he added.
Kurrle confirmed that the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Labor Department were assessing and responding to the economic impacts of the virus in Vermont.
As of 5:30 p.m. Sunday, the state had received 82 “unique” requests for assistance from businesses, she said.
“These businesses run the gamut from inns, to dog boarding businesses, to bars, to manufacturers, to photographers,” Kurrle said. “This small example alone is a good example that this pandemic is impacting every facet of Vermont’s business community.”
Kurrle said a data collection and emergency response team would collate data from businesses that would be shared with federal officials to ensure Vermont received of all potential emergency and economic relief funds. People wishing to contact the state’s economic agencies should call 461-5143 or email requests to email@example.com
Harrington confirmed that the Labor Department would process unemployment claims for workers who had been laid off or for business that had temporarily closed and the services would be streamlined to ensure prompt payment.
Minter praised the response of Welch, Congress and Republican Gov. Phil Scott, as well as state agencies for their response to the crisis.
Minter noted that Capstone Community Action had been “building ladders out of poverty since 1965,” including Head Start, food shelf distribution, emergency fuel assistance, and homelessness prevention and housing services.
“I want to underscore that the participants who use Capstone services are the backbone of our economy, hard-working people who serve Vermonters every day, at your grocery store, your hospital nursing home, schools,” Minter said. “But as the coronavirus hits Vermont, we know that low-income people will be hit the hardest, as they are in every disaster.”
Minter said a report published in The New York Times noted COVID-19 is “twice as deadly for low-income people.”
As a result, she said, all members of the community are vulnerable, she said.
Minter said the federal aid would support school meal programs for children and food shelves, and the virus would increase demand for services.
Minter said that the lessons learned from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 could help the state’s response to the virus.
“I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons that inform our work today,” Minter said. “We know that all recovery is local which is why we’re acting quickly at the local level. The quicker we move, the stronger we will be.”
Mayer said her company, Mamava, had also seen a precipitous drop demand for its lactating facility services for nursing mothers because of the drop in air travel that had reduced demand and it had also affected a manufacturing facility in Springfield.
Disclosure: Editor and Publisher Steven Pappas is the chairman of the board of directors of Capstone Community Action.