The process isn’t pretty, but the Congress appears to be edging toward the passage of  a relief package to offset the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

With the details still emerging, there are some results from the white-knuckle negotiations that give us confidence that members of Congress are responding to the challenges that we face.

The first is the size of the package – $2 trillion, more than twice the size of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was aimed at repairing the damage caused by the previous year’s financial collapse. In retrospect, economists largely agree that the ARRA stimulus bill was effective but not big enough to replace the loss of economic demand caused by the collapse of home values and a stock market crash.

And not only is the coronavirus package big, but much of the money appears to be headed in the right direction. The package includes direct cash aid to most families, enhanced unemployment benefits for workers displaced by the economic contraction and a large loan fund for small businesses.

The bill also includes a $500 billion loan fund for big businesses, states and municipalities to help them weather a revenue crash. This was a Republican proposal and a sticking point in the negotiations. Democrats appear to have won the imposition of conditions on the loans, including how corporations can use the money they borrow and the amount of supervision of the Trump administration’s decisions on how the money will be distributed.

We are encouraged that, for once, there is bipartisan agreement that tax cuts won’t do the job and that deficit-financed stimulus is necessary to prevent a prolonged depression. We hope that this consensus survives as we enter what could be a long period of economic upheaval.

GROCERY WORKERS ON FRONT LINES OF CRISIS RESPONSE

Police, firefighters, health care workers and other key providers of essential services are owed a huge debt of gratitude by all of us who may have to rely on their help during this crisis.

But there is another category of workers who should not be forgotten when we are giving our thanks: grocery store workers.

The places where we buy food are considered essential services under every level of guidance from state and local governments. People who stock shelves and check out customers are constantly exposed to people who may carry the coronavirus. But if these workers were to fall ill or stay home because they are afraid of infection, the rest of us will lose the ability to ride out this crisis in relative comfort.

There are steps that grocery store workers and their employers should take to keep these vital workers on the job. But the rest of us – their customers – also have a responsibility to make sure we are not exposing them to unnecessary risks.

We all need to limit our trips to the grocery store in order to reduce the number of people in enclosed spaces. When possible, customers should make call-ahead orders and pick up their groceries without going inside. When that is not an option, we need to respect safe distances, sanitize our hands and minimize our contact with merchandise that we are not going to buy. And most importantly, if we feel like we are coming down with something, we all have to stay home.

SCHOOL DISTRICTS REBUILD EMERGENCY PLANS

For the last two decades, Maine school districts have been under intense pressure to come up with an emergency response plan.

But apparently, the emergency imagined wasn’t a global pandemic that could empty school buildings for weeks on end. Now administrators are scrambling to deal with this new reality.

School districts in every corner of the state have been shut down for nearly two weeks, and the situation is likely to be extended as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to grow.

Many districts have some kind of distance learning plan, but that does not work for every subject and many students are not equipped to access the internet from home. About half of Maine students receive free or reduced-price meals at school, something that cannot be replaced online.

As educators grapple with what they can do to salvage a school year in which students head into the summer break after missing most of the second semester, they should also look ahead and plan for future disruptions.

As a state, we should be willing to invest in a distance learning option for all students, so we don’t risk another lost year like this.

 


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