The Central Virginian: Economic relief amid the agony

THE CENTRAL VIRGINIAN, DAVID HOLTZMAN

Money intended to ease the pain of business closings and layoffs over the next two to three months is expected to arrive in Louisa County mailboxes or their bank accounts in early-to-mid April.

A check for $1,200 will go to every adult and $500 to every child in households with up to $150,000 in gross income. Small businesses are eligible for thousands of dollars in forgivable loans. People who work as independent contractors will qualify for unemployment insurance for the first time.

None of it sounds nearly as good as the rosy economic situation that existed a month ago, before the dark cloud of the coronavirus descended over the country. But the $2 trillion relief plan that Congress passed last week, known as the CARES Act, provides reason for hope in the short term.

“What we’re trying to do is mitigate the economic devastation some families are facing because of a public health crisis,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who serves Louisa as part of the 7th Congressional District. “Our goal was to ensure workers have food on their table.”

Any business with 500 or fewer employees, which includes most of Louisa’s stores, restaurants and offices, qualifies for forgivable loans. The amount a business can receive is based on the size of their payroll. To keep the money, a business has to commit to keep workers employed into late spring or early summer, when the hope is that the virus will have begun to release its grip.

The federal bill also includes a separate disaster loan program that enables businesses to receive a $10,000 emergency advance. Andy Wade, Louisa County’s economic development program, described the initiative as akin to free money, though to receive it a business must apply for a loan.

“I would encourage anyone who qualifies to apply for it. There’s no reason not to,” Wade said. “That $10,000 does not have to be repaid. I think the government did it that way to get the money in people’s hands as fast as possible.”

The economic relief bill was the third major piece of legislation passed by Congress in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The previous bill provided paid sick leave to people who catch the illness, and included some provisions to protect or enhance health insurance. Copays and deductibles are eliminated for anyone who needs to be tested, and a laid-off worker can shop for insurance on the federal health exchange outside of open enrollment season.

An extra $600 per week was allocated in the CARES Act for people who qualify for unemployment insurance, which is available to people out of work for up to six months. Unemployment programs generally only cover about half of what people earned when they had jobs.

Almost before the ink was dry on the CARES Act, some legislators were already talking about the need for even more spending to keep the economy going. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s decision this week to impose a stay-at-home order and keep many businesses shuttered until June 10 made clear the coronavirus will have a lasting impact.

“The unknown is the most worrisome, not knowing when this is going to end,” Wade said. “So we’re trying to get the word out.”

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