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Business owners ponder their futures as governor ratchets up restrictionsEmergency fund will provide immediate assistance to residents in need during COVID-19 pandemicSpecial: Ongoing COVID-19 coverage

The Senate recently passed a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at fiscally supporting individuals, businesses, schools and the healthcare system. While the package still has to work its way through the House of Representatives before ending up on President Donald Trump’s desk, the progress made on Wednesday night signals some hope for the nation. 

 Some takeaways from the legislation include that could affect Charlottesville and Albemarle County include:

  • $1,200 payments to individuals, along with $500 per minor dependent
  • $350 billion in funding for forgivable small business loans
  • Guardrails for large business assistance that will include restrictions on use for stock buybacks and protections that the funds will go towards payroll
  • Expanded unemployment assistance that includes gig workers and freelancers
  • Childcare and development block grants to help ensure medical workers have access to childcare during the pandemic
  • $150 billion for local/state government and tribal area efforts to combat COVID-19
  • $150 billion towards a plan to aid healthcare systems with testing supplies, protective gear and infrastructure
  • $500 million for public health data modernization
  • Support for manufacturers to remain open
  • Temporary moratoriums on eviction and foreclosure proceedings
  • $30 billion in grants to emergency support for local school systems and higher education institutions
  • Support for America’s pharmaceutical supply chain
  • $1 billion for Community Service Block Grants to support local community-based organizations that provide social services and emergency assistance. 

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said the healthcare components of the package are most crucial during the COVID-19 crisis. Part of it helps ensure medical supplies and protective gear for medical workers.

“We cannot afford to make any more mistakes on the health care side of this. We’ve already done work on the acceleration of the study of treatment and vaccines, but this is a Marshall Plan for our health care infrastructure, and it’s overdue,” he said, referring to the massive assistance plan in 1948.

As such, the legislation aims to help keep medical workers supplied and protected as they care for patients. 

“While we’re trying to encourage people to stay home and social distance, the one kind of worker we need at work right now is our health care workforce,” Kaine said. “They’re very stressed out worrying about their own health, overworked, but also worrying about their own kids.” 

On the support for small businesses — like the many that reside in Charlottesville — funds will be provided through local banks to cover expenses ranging from payroll, mortgage interest, utilities, and other expenses. The forgiven portions will be scaled in relation to how many workers the businesses that use it retain throughout the COVID-19 crisis. 

The initial Republican proposal relied on small business loans that have low interest rates, like the SBA disaster loans many local Charlottesville small businesses are considering applying for, but Kaine said not every small business can survive with such a loan. 

“The problem with many of our small businesses is that if they take a loan and they manage to survive during this challenging time, and the day comes when the public health crisis is over, the economy will not be roaring at the same pace it was before coronavirus,” Kaine said. “They’ll have to survive as the economy restarts. They’ll look at their own balance sheet and just realize they have a lot more debt on their books. That would have been a nonstarter for many small businesses.”

Local entrepreneur Blair Williamson said she is pleased with how the stimulus package can aid her businesses and support her employees. 

Williamson is the president of S.L. Williamson Co., an asphalt and road paving company. As her company is deemed “essential” amidst Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order to shut down most businesses for the time being due to COVID-19, she said road work for her employees has actually been easier and safer with fewer cars on the road. 

“It’s worked out for us with fewer cars on the road so it’s safer for our guys out there. We are grateful to work now. I’m appreciative that the governor has made allowances for businesses like us to operate in ways that will allow us to survive,” she said. “Some other states that have done lockdowns are going to create enormous economic hardship that are going to be difficult to recover from.”

This is where the stimulus package, if passed through Congress, can help her company as well as those in more dire need of financial assistance.

Williamson said she has not had to conduct any layoffs but has been offering more sick leave to her employees so that they can stay home if needed. She said the ability to have some of the sick leave be tax deductible is going to be helpful and said the individual payouts to the people that work for her are “fantastic.”

“Every little bit helps,” Williamson said. 

Williamson also owns Magpie Knits on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, and since the pandemic declaration, has adjusted operations by video chatting with customers and offering free shipping. 

“It’s a totally different scale of business,” Williamson said. “We are trying to make enough money to pay rent and pay people enough to get by.”

While Williamson has not had to lay off employees yet, some businesses have, and some Charlottesville-area residents are self-employed or gig workers who are feeling the financial impact of COVID-19 and may not have qualified for unemployment benefits. 

According to Kaine, the new proposal extends unemployment benefits to four months and includes part-time employees and contractors, as well as the self-employed and gig workers.

“It’s unemployment on steroids in terms of expanding the number of people on unemployment who will be helped,” Kaine said. 

On support for state and local government, Kaine noted how the ongoing budget processes are “being hurt” in the midst of the pandemic as unemployment claims rise, K-12 schools are closed and universities have moved online and many need to invest in more technology to continue learning from a distance. 

“All our projections are off now from what we thought they were going to be,” said Charlottesville City Councilor Michael Payne. 

He called the funding towards state and local government a “good thing” and the overall package  a “step in the right direction,” but felt the bills didn’t go far enough. 

“I think we are going to find out it wasn’t aimed enough at helping the American people to prevent some of these negative impacts we are going to see,” Payne said. “In a perfect world, the legislation would address the impacts of the virus directly through supply chain networks, and payments for people throughout the duration of the crisis every month.” 

While praising the funds that will go towards small businesses, he feels too much still went to large corporations. He would also like to see stronger action to suspend evictions and help with rent and mortgage payment.  Payne also praised the expansion of unemployment and funds that will be disbursed to individuals but said it could be higher for some. 

“For most people, $1,200 is good but for some, it’s not nearly enough,” Payne explained.

Meanwhile, Kaine said that a stimulus package is just the beginning and likely one of the biggest things to pass. More work will need to be done as the pandemic continues. 

“We need to start collecting ideas. I don’t think anyone believes this is the last piece of COVID-19 legislation that will pass,” Kaine said. “So, we need to start collecting the ideas for either things that we omitted, details that we need to adjust, or down-the-road issues that we need to address. We will start gathering that information in discussion with Virginians so that we can continue to focus.”