As Sen. Patty Murray sees it, a nation stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t have to choose between improving public health and re-opening the economy.
The two can improve side by side, she said, but it’s going to take some cohesion between states and billions of dollars in funding from the federal government.
In a conference call with editorial staffers from the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Kitsap Daily News on Thursday, Murray detailed her focus — and some exasperation toward her Republican counterparts — on passing a funding package that would provide more funding for hospitals and rapidly expand the nation’s testing capacity, along with more relief for small business owners.
“There’s a lot more we need to be doing right now to return to normal,” Murray said. “We need to have a serious discussion for what’s needed to safely reopen. We don’t want to lose the progress we’ve made … (and) everyone wants this to end.”
While some Republicans may be interested in supporting further funding for expanded testing, health care resources and business relief, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is more interested in a “wait-and-see” approach, said Murray, the five-term Democrat from Seattle.
“I’m very frustrated by this administration’s missteps, mixed messages and lack of urgency — especially on the issue of testing,” she said.
If there is any bipartisan support for that kind of funding package, Murray said it likely would come from state governors who, like Gov. Jay Inslee, are contemplating massive budget cuts.
On May 5, more than 40 U.S. senators called on the Trump administration for a comprehensive national strategic plan of action by May 24 to ensure states have sufficient tests to begin safely re-opening.
Murray — the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — said she’s particularly focused on getting enough testing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to child care centers and the families that depend on them, along with front-line health care workers.
“I’ve been talking with a lot of child care providers on the (Olympic) Peninsula; they are financially fragile anyway (and) a lot of them have had to close their doors,” Murray said.
Without proper safeguards, those child care centers can’t open, and that puts working families in a bind as well, she said.
“People will not be able to go back to work if there aren’t child care centers open,” she said.
“Everyone … is begging and pleading that we get more access … so they can get back to the work they need to, to protect us in this health crisis.
“We have to make sure business and schools know how to safely reopen … (and) have the adequate protection we need.”
Murray, who’s also a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, joined colleagues recently in introducing the bipartisan, bicameral Relief for Main Street Act.
The legislation, which Murray hopes to see Congress fund in its next COVID-19 funding package, would provide $50 billion to seed and scale local relief efforts, targeted toward businesses with fewer than 20 workers, or businesses with fewer than 50 workers located in low-income neighborhoods.
One hundred mayors across the nation, including Port Angeles’ Kate Dexter, endorsed the proposal.
“Right now, Mitch McConnell is saying, ‘Wait and see.’ I think he’s getting a lot of pressure from a lot of different folks,” Murray said.
There’s a possibility of more Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans in the next funding package, she said, as federal officials continue to hear concerns from small business owners who are trying to keep their businesses afloat until partial or full re-openings.
“(The loans are) definitely part of the conversation,” she said.
The Senate is currently in recess and won’t consider any additional coronavirus stimulus packages until early June.
Black Ball Ferry Line
Murray, a Bothell native, said she’s also concerned for the Port Angeles-based Black Ball Ferry Line, which shut down sailings of the M.V. Coho between Port Angeles and Victoria, B.C., following Canadian restrictions on nonessential travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The run could be shut down through December, and might not be back in service until spring 2021, severely jeopardizing the company’s ability to stay afloat, co-owner Ryan Malane has said.
“I’m going to stay in touch with the Canadian officials, but I just don’t know if that’s sustainable,” Murray said.
“It’s a new virus; we can’t give any guarantees anywhere.”
Also Thursday, Murray met by phone with workers, union leaders, child care providers and service providers for children and adults with disabilities from across the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas to hear about the challenges they are facing during the pandemic.
“We have to ensure that facts and science continue driving our decision making, and that we take every necessary precaution to protect workers and our workplaces so we’re ready to address this virus moving forward,” Murray said in comments provided by her staff.
— Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum, which are sister publications to the North Kitsap Herald.