As U.S. Rep. Fred Keller (R-12) took to the phone and livestream Thursday for a virtual COVID-19 town hall, many who were able to get through with questions wanted to know about the help that has come from the federal government and what the future might hold.
A restaurant owner from Sunbury wanted to know what was next with the paycheck protection program, especially as she struggles to make ends meet with the state’s updated orders limiting indoor dining capacity to 25%
Keller said discussions are currently taking place in Congress about how best to help the hardest-hit business, which include a reduction in the revenue loss threshold and liability reform to protect these businesses.
Keller called the first PPP program a success, which averaged distributions of $103,000 to help many small businesses.
“I’m hopeful we can get something done,” said Keller.
Keller said discussions are also ongoing about the future of the unemployment supplement that has provided an extra $600 per month to those out of work, but expired Friday.
When it came to the $1,200 federal stimulus checks distributed earlier in the pandemic, one caller, identified as Jack from Bradford County, wondered why the federal government was “just throwing money at this problem,” adding that he believed the government was spending the money irresponsibly.
“I have a neighbor whose deceased father – he’s been deceased two years – got a check,” he said. “My wife and I who have not lost any of our income in this process got a check. The in-laws who are on Social Security income and lost no income from their normal (level) got a check.”
Although Keller noted that these stimulus payments were scaled back starting with those who made at least $75,000 a year, Keller believed the final version of the legislation should have been better targeted to those more in need.
“At the beginning (of the COVID-19 pandemic) Congress didn’t have a lot of time to get things done. We did everything where we could get the consensus of the members of Congress to get it done,” Keller explained. “We’re at another point now.”
As debates over the next stimulus continue, Keller said he’s pushing for measures that can help spur economic growth and get people back to work instead of placing additional debt on the shoulders of future generations, while also making sure previous allocations are being properly utilized.
“I’m more in favor of getting rid of some regulation and doing more things so businesses can reopen so that people have money, not just one time, but reoccurring revenue at a job,” he said.
Not one state has spent the entirety of their Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding yet, Keller noted. In Pennsylvania, $1.3 billion of the $3.9 billion the state was allocated remains unspent.
“This money, already allocated, can help reopen the economy and help students go back to school in the fall,” he said.
For all states, he said this money should be fully utilized before Congress spends trillions of dollars more.
Back to school
Another caller, identified as Kim from Bradford County, wanted to know Keller’s thoughts about kids going back to school.
Keller believed that schools can reopen safely, adding that the Education and Labor Committee – which he serves on – just had a hearing about schools safely reopening last week.
“One thing we look at is the American Academy of Pediatrics says we can do it, and they’ve actually laid out ways that it can be done,” Keller explained. “I think it’s important to make sure kids get back to learning, get back to what we need to be doing because every child deserves an education.”
Around $523 million so that elementary and secondary schools in Pennsylvania can reopen safely, Keller noted.
“I think we can do it,” he said.
Implementation of statewide closures
Keller shared some criticism about Wolf’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in some areas, including the delayed reopening of some counties where there were few cases.
The Department of Health had based its phased reopening not only based on the number of cases in a county, but also the county’s proximity to other counties with more cases and access to health care, among other considerations.
“And now putting a one-size-fits-all mandate across the commonwealth when just over 40% of the cases are out of two counties (Allegheny and Philadelphia),” Keller said, regarding the limitations placed against businesses that restricted alcohol from being served unless it is with a meal, closed bars that couldn’t serve food, and reduced the maximum capacity of dining establishments to 25%. “What can be done about that? That’s why I’m very apprehensive of giving more money to the state, because I look at it as Gov. Wolf is going to use that as a political weapon against the citizens of the commonwealth.”
These criticisms were sparked by a question regarding Keller’s response to Wolf withholding $13 million in CARES Act funding from Lebanon County after two of the three county commissioners voted to reopen the county without state approval.
Another caller was focused on the legality of Pennsylvania’s mask mandate, which Keller said is within the power of the governor under an emergency declaration, and that mask wearing has also been promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, he added, “I’m not sure what the penalties would be or how the governor plans on enforcing it.”
Although opinions can vary about the wearing of masks, Keller urged people to be respectful.
“My practice is I always have a mask with me. If people would like me to wear the mask, I wear the mask,” Keller said. “If that’s the policy if I go into a store or am at an event, I’m respectful and put the mask on. We all need to be looking at one another, regardless of what our feeling is, and make sure we are treating each other with respect.”