The House on Thursday is expected to approve another substantial but essential down payment on the nation’s coronavirus response by passing a $484 billion relief package to aid hard-hit small businesses. The plan, which also includes tens of billions of dollars for hospitals and expanded testing, could be a lifeline for millions and a tool for both improving public health and reopening America’s economy. But families, small businesses, and state and local governments are going to need more help, and Congress and President Donald Trump should signal that more is headed into the pipeline.
The legislation passed by the Senate Tuesday brings a much-needed infusion of cash to the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans of up to $10 million to businesses with 500 or fewer employees to cover payroll and certain expenses for an eight-week period. (The Tampa Bay Times and its related companies received a loan of $8.5 million under the program.) Congress included $349 billion for the program in its $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package last month, but because of overwhelming demand, the initiative ran out of money last week. The new Senate measure provides $320 billion in additional funding for small businesses, plus $60 billion in grants and loans for farmers, $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion to expand testing for the virus, which has been woefully inadequate nationwide.
The small business program had a rocky start, as confusing rules and a flood of applicants overwhelmed banks and the Small Business Administration. But it provided critical financing for many businesses paralyzed by the nation’s economic shutdown. Keeping workers employed and paid, and businesses in existence, will be key for communities to recover once the nation begins to reopen. Shoring up businesses will also help state and local governments protect their property values and tax base.
Federal authorities need to fix the mistakes from the first round of funding. In some cases, money intended for small businesses went to big corporate chains instead, and figures show states in the Midwest received a higher percentage of loans than bigger states hit harder by the virus. Banks need clearer guidance and applicants need more assistance to fairly compete for these limited funds. There still won’t be enough money to go around, and taxpayers deserve a process that’s transparent and ably managed.
The assistance to farmers and hospitals appropriately targets key sectors of the economy. The money to expand testing also addresses a critical gap in the nation’s march to reopen. Health experts say the United States must at least triple the 150,000 tests for coronavirus now being conducted nationwide every day for policymakers to have a credible grip on the scope of the outbreak. More tests will give states and communities a better idea of where to marshal their resources. Knowing where the virus exists is a first essential step in separating the sick from the healthy and reopening society.
Trump has said he will sign the bill into law, and Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge more rescue measures are needed. Congress and the White House are rightly considering new spending for state and local governments, hazardous pay for front-line workers, additional food assistance and an infrastructure spending plan. These are all important pieces of the public safety net. Lawmakers also need to revise the population formulas used in last month’s stimulus bill to make medium-sized cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg eligible for direct, federal relief. These are massive outlays, but the crisis requires it.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news