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Shuttered Businesses, Laid Off Workers Await Federal Relief Funds

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UPDATED: MARCH 27, 1:30 p.m. -- Congress has passed, and President Trump has signed, a $2 trillion emergency relief package for Americans affected by the coronavirus pandemic. But local businesses are wondering how much that aid will actually help them.

The massive aid package, known as the CARES Act, passed with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. It includes $350 billion in loans to small businesses and unemployment benefits for laid off workers extended for an additional 13 weeks.

“People are anxious to apply for the monies,” says Sandra Slattery with the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. But, she says, they need to plan around Oregon’s current stay at home order. As long as many businesses are required to remain closed in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, she says, government loans may not help. 

“There’s a timing issue of, well, when does this make the most sense for a business to access the funds if their employees already have been laid off? When does it make sense to bring them back so that they can be productive?”

Oregon’s stay at home order is in effect until lifted by Governor Kate Brown.

The new law also calls for direct, one-time payments of $1,200 to most adults, with an additional $500 for children. Federal officials say those could be sent out to Americans in the coming weeks.

But unlike the 2009 stimulus package passed by the Obama administration, this plan is not focused on jumpstarting the economy. Instead it’s about providing financial support while officials try to curb the spread of COVID-19, according to Ric Holt, professor of economics at Southern Oregon University.

“If you’re just using it as a stimulus, [if] you’re just going out there and spending, the money’s going to dissipate and you’re still going to have the problem,” Holt says. “This is a way of providing resources for health care, allowing people to lock down, to provide those resources in order that we can have stability in the long run.”

In addition to support for small businesses and workers, the CARES Act directs $100 billion to hospitals working on the pandemic. Holt says the bill would help support the health care system while physicians and nurses care for patients with COVID-19 and while researchers attempt to develop a vaccine.

The sooner we address the coronavirus pandemic by staying home and treating those who are sick, the sooner people can go back to work, Holt says.

“If we don’t do that, then you’re going to have to confront this again.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.