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How Minnesotans in Congress are responding to the COVID-19 outbreak

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was pushing a package of legislation responding to the crisis on Thursday.

The U.S. Capitol will discontinue public tours through at least the end of March amid mounting fears of a widespread coronavirus outbreak.
The U.S. Capitol will discontinue public tours through at least the end of March amid mounting fears of a widespread coronavirus outbreak.
REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

Governments around the world are rushing to determine an appropriate response to coronavirus. COVID-19 (a new strain of coronavirus) was first detected in China in 2019 and, subsequently, elsewhere around the world. Yesterday, The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.

In China, the hardest hit country, sporting events and theaters were closed, as were schools and universities. Mobile phone apps like WeChat were used to track people’s movements and stop people with infections from traveling. In Italy, which has the second-highest number of reported cases, public processions were banned, as were funerals. And in Japan, the government shut down schools around the country and is encouraging businesses to allow employees to work from home.

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In Minnesota, five cases of the virus have been confirmed. The first case, confirmed last Friday, was a man in Ramsey County, older than 65, who had been on the Grand Princess cruise ship currently in quarantine in California (there are 42 other Minnesotans still quarantined on the ship).

At the state level, Minnesota’s Governor and State Legislature are looking for a unified approach to prepare for the worst, but not inspire panic. The Legislature fast-tracked $21 million in response measures to the governor’s desk and the governor signed the bill this week.

What about in Congress?

$8.3 billion allocation

Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to allocate $8.3 billion to combat the virus in an emergency supplemental spending bill. Every single Minnesotan in the Minnesota congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans, voted for the bill. It passed 415 to 2, with two Republicans voting against it. The bill then passed in the Senate, where both Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith voted for it, with one no vote: Rand Paul (R-KY). The president signed it into law last week.

Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
The bill allocates about $3 billion for research and development of vaccines, $2.2 billion for prevention and rapid-response, $1 billion for medical supplies, and $1.25 billion for combating the disease overseas. Klobuchar has said the bill will allocate at least $10 million specifically to Minnesota.

House Democrats intend to hold a vote on another multi-billion dollar coronavirus response bill on Thursday. That measure includes language to establish emergency paid sick leave, free testing, unemployment insurance, and provisions for food aid. It’s unclear if the president will sign the bill or how Republicans in the Senate intend to vote, but House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said the bill comes up short, and he asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hold it for 24 to 48 hours. Pelosi said she still intends to put it up for a vote Thursday.

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Labor and Education discussed The Healthy Families Act, a bill that would require employers with 15 or more employees to provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked (up to 56 hours per year). Rep. Ilhan Omar, who serves on the committee, supports this legislation, pointing out that, during the coronavirus outbreak, most U.S. employees cannot work from home or access readily available sick leave.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson
Rep. Ilhan Omar
“If you walk up and down the halls of this building, you will see numerous signs on office doors, indicating that some congressional offices have decided to close, are allowing their employees to telework, or have decided to not to take meetings in the public,” Omar said. “Although I respect instinct to protect ones staff, we have to stop and ask ourselves: Does the average American have this option? Or is this a privilege that only some, including the members of congress and employees of this body, are lucky to have?”

Omar is also the author of a bill that would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve waivers to let schools continue to operate free and reduced school lunch plans even if classes aren’t being held, and even if it results in an increased cost for the federal government. ”Twenty-two million children rely on federal subsidized meals. For many kids, it is the only meal they get each day,” Omar said in a statement. “It is our responsibility to ensure that kids continue to get the meals they need.”

Both of Minnesota’s senators are also concerned about the virus’ impact on other government functions. Smith and Klobuchar were the lead authors of a letter sent on March 3rd to U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham seeking information on how the bureau planned to ensure census takers and the public are protected as the census is conducted.

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In West Saint Paul last week, Rep. Angie Craig hosted a town hall with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in St. Paul, to discuss coronavirus preparedness.

Rep. Angie Craig
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Angie Craig
“Our public health officials need the testing available to help determine the level of community spread to best inform the public on how to stay safe,” Craig said there,

And Rep. Dean Phillips, along with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, met with Vice President Mike Pence last month to discuss the outbreak.

“I am on a mission to serve and protect my constituents and all Americans, and will continue to ask critical questions and demand action during the months ahead,” Phillips said in a statement. “We must tackle this threat with a unified, nonpartisan front at home and overseas, and ensure that our public health officials are afforded the resources to protect our nation.”