BOSTON (SHNS) – One day after President Donald Trump signed a $484 billion stimulus package, Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal discussed talks that are already underway on the next COVID-19 relief bill and said that proposal should emerge “in the next 10 days.”
The next bill could address a range of growing economic needs brought on by the pandemic and the ensuing business shutdowns, Neal said, such as more funding for unemployment insurance benefits, support for state and municipal governments, and potentially another round of deposits or checks sent directly to Americans.
Neal, a Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said Saturday after touring an East Longmeadow manufacturing facility with Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito that he has had “almost hourly” conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the next round of congressional action.
“I’ve already been working on Phase Four, which is going to include help for states, cities and towns across the country,” he said. “We believe that we will find a negotiated position on that, but we’re already at it, we are already working on it. I think that when you look at the exhaustion of state revenue, it’s amplified by the fact that this is still going to be with us for a while, so that expenditure is a wise use of the public purse.”
He added, “We believe that we will have a proposal in the next 10 days that we intend to put out.”
Congress has already passed four separate pieces of legislation collectively directing trillions of dollars toward fighting the public health crisis and blunting the economic strain it has caused.
The latest “Phase 3.5” bill, which passed the House with just five dissenting votes Thursday and was signed by Trump on Friday, will direct $100 billion toward hospitals and testing, about $30 billion of which Neal said will help community health centers and hospitals that serve a disproportionate share of Medicaid enrollees.
Also included in the bill is another $310 billion to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to businesses that keep employees on payroll despite shutdowns and had its initial $349 billion depleted in the first 12 days.
“Our idea here was to keep an infusion of money in the system,” Neal said.
If Neal and other House Democrats do unveil another proposal in the coming weeks, they appear likely to face opposition from Senate Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly called for a “pause” before additional legislation and suggested that states facing financial shortfalls should be allowed to declare bankruptcy rather than receive more federal dollars.
“Rules for Engagement”
The law Trump signed Friday directs $25 billion to the expansion of testing, and Neal voiced support for widespread COVID-19 testing.
“We are not going to establish confidence and open the marketplace if people are afraid to go to work,” Neal said, recounting that he and other visitors to the Cartamundi location had their temperatures checked by a nurse before their tour. “I think that’s going to be part of the way of life as we go forward for a long period of time.”
The facility, part of toy and game giant Hasbro’s operation, is making 50,000 plastic face shields per week to donate to hospitals in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Baker said more than 600 companies have partnered with the administration to switch their operations to meet COVID-19 needs, 400 of which are based in Massachusetts.
Many non-essential businesses across the state remain closed, unless they can function with employees working remotely, more than a month after they were ordered to shutter physical operations. Under Baker’s executive order, that restriction is scheduled to run until May 4.
With nine days remaining, Baker declined to say explicitly that he plans to extend the forced closures but — after saying Friday that he is “not going to be interested in reopening anything” until the state is clearly past the worst of the outbreak — hinted that the highly infectious virus remains too much of a risk to rush the process.
The governor said his administration selected May 4 to give the public a clear message that businesses would not open a few days after shutting down and because initial projections indicated a surge in COVID-19 cases in early April.
Massachusetts is still in the surge, he said, later in April than initial estimates.
“Any decisions we make with respect to reopening are going to require two things,” he said. “Number one, the same thing, required almost everywhere else, which is some drop in hospitalization rates and some evidence that we are in fact over the hump okay with respect to the surge. The second is putting rules for engagement or reopening in place, which we’ll have a lot more to say about next week.”