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Warner: Federal COVID-19 response 'a disaster'

Mike Still • Apr 18, 2020 at 5:00 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Virginia U.S. Sen. Mark Warner told regional business and economic officials Friday that federal stimulus efforts for small businesses need to be improved as Congress works on expanding funding for those businesses.

Warner, in a conference call with Northeast Tennessee and Virginia officials, also criticized the federal government’s handling of COVID-19 supplies of personal protective gear and testing coordination.

“I’m anxious to get things done as well as long as it’s done in a smart, data-driven way,” Warner said of a national reopening of the economy.

Warner questioned why the U.S. did not follow the lead of South Korea, Germany and other countries in starting testing earlier in the year, adding that he sees the country getting answers on why that testing did not happen.

Johns Hopkins University is working on a website that will allow Americans to find where testing is being done by jurisdiction and under what criteria.

“It’s crazy why the federal government doesn’t have that kind of information,” Warner said.

He also called the federal effort to obtain personal protective equipment “a disaster,” as states have been forced to compete against each other for purchases.

“The fact is, we’re competing is simply driving up the prices,” Warner said. “The federal government could have brought in Walmart, Amazon. … We have plenty of logistics experts. Instead, we’re unfortunately caught with this very competitive approach which, frankly, is putting areas like Southwest Virginia farther behind.”

Warner said the federal stimulus package is starting to send checks to individuals and families, but increasing numbers of unemployment claims are putting heavy stresses on states’ jobless claims systems.

Small business loans and the Paycheck Protection Program for keeping small businesses’ employees and overhead costs paid need to be expanded, Warner said. He supported those expansions on two conditions. Since neither requires immediate demonstration of financial need, he said, some companies with access to lines of credit or suffering no negative effects from the pandemic may have gotten loans when they do not need them.

Warner also said the eight-week duration of Paycheck Protection Program payments may not be long enough for small businesses to pay employees and bills until an economic turnaround happens.

Microbusinesses and nonprofit organizations needing stimulus loans also may not get the access to loan funds that other businesses are getting under the programs, Warner said. The stimulus programs are set to fund 1.7 million loan applications, he said, but the country has about 11 million businesses that employ fewer than 500 people.

Warner said he expects Congress to approve expanded stimulus funding early next week.

“This is not a stimulus plan,” Warner said. “It’s really just to keep the economy alive.”

Warner said the situation with shortages of medical protective gear, chemicals for COVID-19 testing kits and analyzers and of certain drugs points to another problem for the U.S. Much of that material comes from China.

“It makes no sense,” Warner said, adding that the U.S. needs to look at bringing production of much of that material back to the country.

United Way of Southwest Virginia President Travis Staton said many of the 160 nonprofit operations his organization supports face a combination of stress from the pandemic’s financial crash and from finding ways to fund their operations so they can help the region’s residents in any recovery. Staton told Warner that child care programs have been especially vulnerable during the pandemic.

“We not only wanted to help small businesses but nonprofits too,” Warner said. “We want to rebuild the (stimulus) program, but rebuild it with a little more focus.”

Asked if the Trump administration’s focus on reopening the economy could lead to more COVID-19 outbreaks, Warner said states need to be cautious.

“The worst thing would be for us to reopen too rashly, get a second round of the virus, and then the public’s confidence in any leaders would be greatly undermined,” Warner said. “My sense is, the president is going to leave this to the governors.”

Warner said widespread COVID-19 antibody testing for more people in the U.S. will be needed, and businesses may need to do things like screening employees for fevers before they enter workplaces.

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