Commentary: Coronavirus relief package has become singular legislative focus

An illustration of the structure of a coronavirus. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

With the outbreak of COVID-19 in Alaska, we are facing a serious public health emergency that is affecting every aspect of life and sector of our economy. I know a lot of you are looking for answers to questions that are critical to your family’s health, safety, and economic well-being. As such, I wanted to update you on what we know and how we are responding to this crisis.

There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the duration of the pandemic and the extent of its impacts; however, as the spread of COVID-19 continued to trend upward last week, the severity of the situation became unmistakable. Recognizing the urgent need for financial relief and the possibility of health concerns cutting session short, passing a budget and a coronavirus relief package has become our singular focus. Committees are now restricted to work on budget bills or relief packages. Our goal is to have the operating and supplemental budget, as well as the necessary financial assistance in place by next Friday.

 As I write this, it is Thursday morning (March 19). There have been 214,894 COVID-19 cases worldwide resulting in 8,732 fatalities. In the U.S., over 9,235 cases have resulted in 150 deaths. In Alaska, there are 9 confirmed cases (none in Cordova). 

On a federal level, the Senate passed a $1 trillion relief package on Wednesday for additional testing, to extend paid sick and family leave, and to strengthen unemployment insurance. Further, the Treasury Department expects to send direct payments to workers facing financial loss due to COVID-19 by early next month. The Administration is requesting that all Americans avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and cease unnecessary travel. 

On a state level, Alaska is currently under a public health disaster emergency declaration. The governor has ordered all restaurants, bars, breweries, cafes, and entertainment facilities closed until April 1; this restriction does not apply to grocery and convenience stores, soup kitchens, and employee cafeterias. Carry-out, drive-thru, and delivery services are still allowed. All state operated libraries, archives, and museums have been closed through March 31, all 507 public schools are closed to students through March 30, visitation rights are closing at Alaska’s Pioneer Homes, there are travel mandates in place, and much more.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has created the following COVID-19 website that includes the most up-to-date information on mandates, as well as health guidelines and alerts in Alaska:http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/id/Pages/COVID-19/default.aspx.

I strongly encourage everyone to visit the website, read the materials, and adhere to the mandates and health guidelines. Working together, we can stop the spread of COVID-19. If you have coronavirus related questions, please dial 211 for information. If 211 doesn’t work in your area, please dial 1-800-478-2221. 

Aside from the obvious health emergency, the economic implications of this outbreak are staggering. Travel restrictions and social distancing, while urgently needed, create an economic emergency that must be addressed with equal urgency. 

The service industry is essentially shut down and Alaska is on the cusp of what would normally be a robust tourism and commercial fishing season. Again, we don’t know the full extent and duration of COVID-19, but assuming it will go away soon is not a good economic response. We need to hope for the best, follow health guidelines to a T, and prepare for the worst economically. Come this spring and summer, I would rather be overprepared than underprepared.

Governor Dunleavy has created the Alaska Economic Stabilization Team to work on economic protections in response to COVID-19. The team will be led by former U.S. Senator Mark Begich and former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell with the mission of expediting a comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining seats will be filled by a cross section of Alaska’s economic leaders and former elected officials. I have requested that the commercial fishing sector be heavily involved in that process. The stabilization team will provide regular updates to the Legislature and we will respond accordingly. 

The Legislature and the governor have approved some initial funding to address COVID-19. The funding will provide for 10 temporary positions, $4 million in state funding, $9 million in federal funding, and $1.3 million to transport elders and Mental Health Trust Beneficiaries to healthcare institutions. Additionally, the Legislature is currently finalizing the supplemental bill that contains $8.5 million in grants to municipalities for COVID-19-related commercial passenger vessel operations, $5.5 million for medical and protective equipment, including testing supplies, $3.5 million for transportation to housing for medical assistance; $2.5 million for quarantine housing, $1.5 million for the state epidemiology lab, $1.5 million for personnel for lab, support, and emergency operations, as well as 24-hour facility staff, and $500,000 for public distribution of vital health recommendations and information.

There are also additional avenues for emergency funding that the House Finance Committee will pursue this week and next; we are still formulating that package, but I will update you as I know more. Senators Murkowski and Sullivan are also working diligently on a forthcoming stimulus package.

The upcoming fishing season is the largest economic concern I have for Cordova. Processing capacity, shipping, and marketing are already facing considerable challenges. Further, these challenges will only increase if the current rate of infection is not reversed as we near the salmon season.

I have reached out to the processing sector and am in discussions about an adequate contingency plan to address the availability of the workforce, infectious disease protocols in the canneries, as well as marketing challenges. Aside from being involved in those discussions, I want to ensure that lines of communication are open between the Administration, the Legislature, the processing sector, harvesters, and communities so the preparations are coherent, effective, and adequately communicated to stakeholders. Currently, there are three staff from the Fisheries Committee assigned to working on this topic by interfacing with industry leaders and reporting their findings back to the committee. Please contact Matt Gruening in my office at matt.gruening@akleg.gov  or 465-3271 if you have any questions. I will update you as soon as I know more.

Yesterday, the House passed HB 308-Unemployment Benefits for COVID-19. This legislation will address some impacts of COVID-19 on Alaska’s workforce. The legislation does three things: it waives the one week waiting requirement to begin receiving unemployment insurance benefits. It increases the weekly per-dependent benefit from $25 to $75, providing some relief for families who have lost childcare and income simultaneously. Finally, it allows those who are unable to work, or who are underemployed because of public health measures, to become eligible for unemployment benefits.

This is the most comprehensive update I can provide at this time. I will update you within the week as things develop.

I want to leave you with four key takeaways. First, please know that the administration and the Legislature recognize the gravity of this situation, both in health and economic terms, and have set aside differences to address COVID-19 with a unified response; help is on the way! Second, please know that as your representative, I am working diligently to understand and lessen the impacts on communities in our district. Third, please follow the recommended health, travel, and social distancing mandates. The less this infection spreads, the less it will impact the health of our residents and the economics of our state. Finally, do not panic. If we act together in a methodical and careful manner, I am confident we can prepare for and overcome any challenge that COVID-19 has to offer.

I will update the paper next week regarding progress to restore ferry service, an update on disaster relief, and other important priorities; however, given the events of this past week, I wanted this update to focus solely on the COVID-19 and the response.

Remember, I work for you. Please reach out to me with any questions or concerns on this or any other issue important to you and your family.

Sincerely,

Louise Stutes
State House Representative for District 32
Proudly Serving Kodiak, Cordova, Yakutat, and Seldovia
Rep.Louise.Stutes@akleg.gov
(907) 465-2487
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