Schatz touts pandemic relief package

  • Brian Schatz

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said Wednesday that members of Congress, especially the Democratic majority, are in “broad agreement” about a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package being worked out in Washington.

“I think, for Hawaii, it’s money for vaccines, it’s money to help people to stay in their homes — either rental housing or to prevent them from losing their homes through the loss of their mortgage. And it’s money for the state government to be able to plug the budget hole, because I think they’ve been delivering services. But they just don’t have the revenue, because tourism has taken a nosedive,” the Hawaii Democrat said on a Facebook Live forum.

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Gov. David Ige and other state officials have projected a $1.4 billion deficit due to reduced tax revenue during the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t want to overpromise, because it’s still the Congress and things can go sideways, but we’re moving at a determined pace, and we have broad agreement about what is necessary,” Schatz said.

Another relief proposal Schatz said there’s consensus about is “the biggest investment in native communities in American history.”

“The House will pass their version of the package probably next Thursday or next Friday,” he said. “And then, we’ll take it up the week following or the week after that.

“The intent is to pass this package, certainly by the middle of March, where there’s a so-called ‘unemployment cliff’ after which we literally run out of unemployment funds.”

According to Schatz, federal lawmakers also likely will “look at another extension of the unemployment benefits, probably a slightly lower dollar amount, but still enough to enable people to survive, to pay their rent, to pay for their groceries and handle their utilities.”

Schatz said his “No. 1 priority” for the relief bill is help for strapped state and county governments, which he said could prevent layoffs or furloughs for public workers.

“Although previous relief packages were great, none of them had this kind of flexible money for state and county government — and this is a real high priority for Democrats, going forward,” he said. “I do think that it will plug the budget hole in the short term — not necessarily fix any structural problems with the deficit in state government — but it should get us through this crisis.”

The senator said aid for small businesses “will be an extension of the (Paycheck Protection Program) … which some business have loved and some have not loved.”

Schatz said the very nature of Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy has made it especially vulnerable during the pandemic.

“Any economic strategy that requires the gathering of people has suffered the most. So it’s restaurant, it’s hospitality, it’s venues,” he said. “And that is why Hawaii has done very well on the COVID side, but very poorly on the economic side, because we depend on gathering. That’s the … lifeblood of our economy, and people haven’t been able to do it.”

State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char has said Hawaii has the resources to administer 80,000 COVID-19 vaccinations a week, but the vaccine supply from federal sources has lagged far behind that number.

“I’m somewhat hopeful about the availability of vaccine over the next six weeks,” Schatz said. “It’s sort of never enough until you have enough for anyone to walk into a CVS or Longs or a Kaiser or Queen’s and just say, ‘I’d like to be vaccinated.’

“We’re not going to be there for a couple more months.”

He also expressed excitement at the likely prospect of Johnson &Johnson receiving an emergency use authorization from the federal government for its vaccine in the near future.

“That’s just a one-jab thing, that makes for way easier logistics. … And hundreds of millions of doses will be available,” Schatz said.

Addressing the reluctance among a significant percentage of individuals — especially among the young, including active military — to receive the vaccine, Schatz said, “I know there’s lots of skepticism and worry. But this thing’s safe and will save your life and give you your life back.”

Hawaii’s senior senator also expressed optimism in-person classroom instruction in schools could ramp up soon.

“The (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) changed their guidelines to basically say six feet of social distancing is not a prerequisite,” he said. “It should be done to the greatest extent practical. And that is a big change in policy. And what that means is, in places that there’s low COVID … and universal masking, it is OK to have kids three feet apart as long as they’re masked and you’re in a place where there’s very, very low COVID.”

Schatz cautioned, however, that “a collective determination to reopen the schools” will require significant logistical adjustments.

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“It takes curriculum changes. It takes the reconfiguration of physical space. It takes COVID protocols, new training for teachers and principals and other school staff,” he said. “So, if we’ve decided to do this, and I think we have, collectively, although that’s not a formal decision … then the logistics are going to be tremendously challenging. And if we don’t get started right away, then we’re going to lose the fourth quarter of the academic year.

“I’m not suggesting that we should flip a switch and just reopen the schools. I am suggesting that if the COVID rates stay this low, or even continue on their downward trajectory, we have to be ready for the possibility that we could actually save the fourth quarter of this academic year.”

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