Virus Bill Put by House Has Fans in Hard-Hit New York

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the so-called Heroes Act, the latest Covid-19 relief package proposed by the House of Representatives, at his live-streamed press briefing Wednesday. A sign-language interpreter is pictured on the right side of the screen.

MANHATTAN (CN) — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio praised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her chamber Wednesday for what he characterized as a generous Covid-19 relief package that would provide sorely needed assistance to his hard-hit city.

“What we have needed is a clear commitment from the federal government for a massive stimulus plan that would put us back on our feet and make us strong for the future, and finally we see the beginning of such a plan,” de Blasio said this morning in his daily coronavirus press conference at City Hall.

“Finally we see the beginning of an answer in Washington, D.C.”

As of Tuesday, when the bill summary was released, more than 80,000 Americans were dead from Covid-19 — the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus — and over 1.3 million infected. New York City Tuesday had seen 184,319 confirmed cases, 15,101 confirmed Covid-19 deaths, and 5,136 additional deaths it determined were probably caused by the virus.

Titled the Heroes Act, the new bill passed by the Democrat-led House of Representatives would pump $3 trillion into the U.S. economy. It sets aside some $500 billion for state governments, while local authorities would receive $375 billion in aid. Tribes and U.S. territories would get $20 billion each, and roughly $175 billion would be set aside in a special emergency fund held for public health and social services.

The bill includes $17 billion for New York City and $34 billion for New York state, de Blasio said. It also would provide funding for increased food stamp benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP; new and renewed Section 8 housing vouchers; and $15.75 billion in grants to support transit service. 

Survivors of first responders who died while working to address the Covid-19 pandemic would additionally be entitled to line-of-duty federal benefits under the bill, which establishes a $200 billion “Heroes’ Fund” of hazard pay for essential workers. They would receive an additional $13 an hour on top of their wages, or up to a $10,000 bonus. 

The mayor acknowledged Senate Minority Chuck Schumer, the senior senator from New York, is now in charge of “shepherding” the bill through his Republican-led chamber. It’s not yet clear when the Senate will take it up, he added later. 

Baruch College professor David Birdsell, an expert in communications and government who has read the summary of the Heroes Act, said the bill faces an uphill battle in the Republican-held Senate. 

“This is a basket of benefits that states and localities have been crying for for weeks now,” Birdsell said in a phone interview Wednesday, adding that Republican and Democratic local leaders alike have been pushing for more aid for their cities and states. 

He noted that the bill “makes a great deal of sense for people who believe in a strong role for government” but said, as long as the Senate acts on the president’s preferences, it’s unlikely to pass in its current form. 

The bill is getting a better reception, however, among Republicans who are up for re-election. Birdsell said some have indicated they might vote for it.

Birdsell also observed that the the pandemic has exposed some fault lines in the Republican Party, as many elderly constituents, fearing for their lives, disapprove of Trump’s handling of the crisis.

“They’ve got to figure out how their behavior during the epidemic is going to sit long term,” he said of Republican leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been pushing for liability rejection for companies that want to force their employees back but don’t want to be held responsible if workers fall ill or die. That conversation, Birdsell said, is a “remarkable moment in American politics.”

Specific workplace protections, Birdsell said, could make the bill more palatable to Democrats.

“We know it’ll be a fight,” de Blasio said Wednesday, following up with a direct plea to the White House.

“Mr. President, we’re looking to you,” he said. “Your hometown’s looking to you …. we’re one America, trying together to recover. We need you. You say the word, and the U.S. Senate will follow.”

De Blasio also said the city’s “plan A” is to open schools in September, though it will have a number of backup plans.

“My goal is a full reopening” of schools in the fall, de Blasio said. “That’s what we’re planning on, that’s what we’re going for.” 
The issue of school closures has become a power struggle between de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who maintains he alone has the power to open or close schools in the state. 

In his own press conference Wednesday in Watertown, New York, Cuomo said he wasn’t sure yet whether the state’s public university system would open for classes in the fall, in the wake of California’s state university system’s announcement Tuesday it would be mostly online until at least January 2021.

In response to a journalist’s question in Manhattan, de Blasio said he himself hasn’t been tested “this whole time” for Covid-19, adding that City Hall doesn’t have a regular testing program and is working with a skeleton crew. De Blasio makes regular hospital visits.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea delivered an impassioned defense of his police department at Wednesday’s press conference. Dogged for decades by complaints of discriminatory policing, the NYPD has continued that streak into the pandemic as data last week showed 81% of its social-distancing summonses were for black and Hispanic New Yorkers. 

“I don’t think that anyone would say we’re racist when we’re delivering food to elderly victims that have been shut up in their apartment,” playing with children, visiting victims of domestic violence, or working with homeless and mentally ill New Yorkers, Shea said. 

He admitted that the people receiving social-distancing summonses are mostly minorities. 

“Disparities exist in every facet of life, not just in New York City but in this country, and it’s rooted in much deeper issues than the New York City police department,” Shea said. “I will also not have my police department called a racist police department.”

In Watertown, Cuomo also announced that virus rates for the state’s essential workers are lower than those in the general population, according to a state survey conducted through antibody testing. In New York City, for example, an estimated 19.9% of the population carry antibodies to the novel coronavirus according to the study. But just 14.2% of transit workers and 12.2% of health care workers tested positive, while the NYPD clocked in at 10.5% and the fire department and EMTs had the highest rate with 17.1%.

Cuomo also announced that elective surgeries, which have been on pause to leave hospital beds open for Covid-19 patients, can resume in most of the state, except in New York City and surrounding Long Island, Rockland and Westchester County, as well as Erie County on the northwestern end of the state.

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