When the $1 trillion relief package known as the CARES Act was signed into law in March, the hope was that it would be enough to get the country through the worst of coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, COVID-19 cases in July are spiking to record levels. After months of reduced economic activity, many individuals, businesses, even entire industries, are on the brink of financial collapse.

Those $1,200 stimulus checks are a distant memory, and soon one of the CARES Act’s main anti-poverty provisions is set to expire.

Slowly, a follow-up relief package is coming together in Congress. Because the problem is massive, with so many interests making credible pleas for help, the solution has to be massive too. If it’s not, we’ll all suffer.

BENEFITS EXPIRE

Most pressing is the need to extend the expanded unemployment benefits, which have put an extra $600 a week into the hands of the jobless during the pandemic, and which are set to expire Saturday.

The enhanced benefits, along with the stimulus checks and established aid programs such as SNAP, helped keep Americans out of poverty even as the bottom fell out of the economy and unemployment rose with record speed.

Republicans argue that the extra money provides an incentive to stay unemployed. But workers cannot refuse to return to a job if it is offered and still keep their benefits, and in any case the problem now is not too few workers but too few jobs.

Eliminating the benefits now would invite disaster. It would thrust millions of people in poverty overnight. As tenant protections run out, a wave of evictions is expected to follow, in Maine and around the country. Hunger, already up during the pandemic, will continue to grow.

It would also rip a huge hole in the economy when it least can afford it — unemployment benefits accounted for 6% of all U.S. income in May.

BUSINESSES NEED HELP

Businesses need help too. The aid in the CARES Act, including Payment Protection Program, paid out hundreds of billions of dollars, but it was not a good fit for lot of businesses, and never anticipated months of reduced economic activity.

It doesn’t take long for the effects to reverberate outward. With restaurants at limited capacity, and bars, arenas and concert halls empty, for example, not only are those industries hurt, but so are the ones that supply, support and complement them.

The small loans given to lobster boat captains, for instance, won’t be enough to make up for revenue lost because people aren’t going to restaurants as often.

Those are just a few of the individuals, businesses and industries that now sit on the edge of a cliff. They did just what they were supposed to do — they shut down and stayed home, giving governments time to get the virus under control and build up systems of testing and tracing to keep it there.

But that time was wasted, by states who lifted restrictions too soon and by a federal government utterly unable to engage with the pandemic in any meaningful way.

LIMPING ALONG

Now instead of trying to restart activities, some states are being forced to put restrictions back in place. Elsewhere people are, understandably, too unsure of conditions to resume activities even if restrictions are lifted. It seems likely that our economy will continue to limp along at partial strength for the foreseeable future.

Except this time, so many people and businesses are already cut to the bone like they weren’t back in March. Another package like the CARES Act will simply not be enough.

It will take something more along the lines of the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion bill passed by House Democrats in May. Among other measures, it would extend enhanced unemployment, and provide assistance and protection to renters and housing providers. It would support small businesses and give local and state governments the money they need to save public jobs and keep schools safe as they attempt to reopen this fall.

All signs indicate that the worst of the pandemic, as an economic and public health crisis, is yet to come. We have to be ready for it.

 

 


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